Black Arrow, I.J. Parker
This is the third book in a series of mysteries set in 11th century Japan, the central character of which is Sugawara Akitada, an official in the Ministry of Justice in the imperial capital of Heian-Kyo (today's Kyoto). The first Akitada story I read was The Masuda Affair, the seventh in the series (and one of my favorite books of 2011), and I am now catching up with the earlier books.
At the end of the second book, Rashomon Gate, Akitada accepted an appointment as the provisional governor of Echigo Province to the north (now the Niigata Prefecture). As he will discover, this is a very different world from the capital. It is known as "Snow Country" because of its long hard winters, which make travel, and therefore communication with the capital, impossible once the snows begin to fall. The territory is also vulnerable to attack from the Ezo (Ainu) people from the north, and local warlords form the first line of defense against them. As in Echigo, many of the formally-appointed governors prefer to delegate their responsibilities while they live in more congenial surroundings.
Akitada has brought his new wife Tamako (now expecting their first child) to the town of Naoetsu, with his household staff Seimei (his secretary), Tora, Genba and Hitomaro (all former outlaws). He considers these men members of his family, for whom he is responsible, and their loyalty to him proves vital in this new assignment. Akitada discovers that his position as governor does not impress people. Real power rests with the Uesugi family, which holds the impregnable Takata castle, an army of warriors, and the title of High Constable.
Akitada is determined to uphold imperial authority and his own position as governor. When the townspeople refuse to bring cases to his tribunal, he takes over the investigation of the murder of a local inn-keeper. When the old lord of Takata, Uesugi Maro, dies and his equally aged retainer Hideo, disappears, Akitada and his staff begin looking into that matter too, as well as the finances of the province. All this leads Akitada into conflict with the new lord of Takata, and with a prominent local merchant Sunada, both of whom seem to have much too much influence. He finds unexpected allies in the community of hinin, outcasts, many of them of mixed Japanese and Ezo descent, and with a yamabushi priest, a shaman-healer. Akitada must draw on all of his resources, including his knowledge of the law, to solve the murders and maintain imperial authority in the province, even against armed attack.
I really enjoyed this story. While I would not want to be snowed in for the season at Naoetsu, it makes a wonderful setting, particularly for this time of year (even in unseasonably warm Houston). I don't know much about 11th century Japan, and as always I appreciated the "Historical Note" at the end of the book. I learned something about the Ezo (Ainu) from Isabella Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, recounting her travels to the far north of Japan in 1878, which made her one of the first Europeans, men or women, to visit that remote region.
I also enjoyed Akitada's adventures. I expected him to triumph over the Emperor's enemies, and not just because I've read ahead in the series, but watching him work out the cases and the political situation was very satisfying. I find him an appealing character, his strong sense of duty and honor mixed with self-deprecation and doubt. He is at times overwhelmed with responsibility, particularly toward his family, but he also draws strength from them, and they respond with loyalty and affection, forgiving his occasional peevishness and sulks. I also enjoy reading about all the domestic details of life in 11th century Japan, where tea is expensive and considered more a medicine than a necessity of life. I'm glad I already have the next book in the series all ready to go.