Thursday, September 22, 2011

Murder in medieval Japan

The Masuda Affair, I.J. Parker

I came across this in the "new book" bins at the library, and the cover caught my eye.  Standing there, I opened the book, and from the first paragraph I wanted to know what happened next:
"He was on his homeward journey when he found the boy. At the time, caught in the depth of hopelessness and grief, he did not understand the significance of their meeting.  Sugawara Akitada, a member of the privileged class and moderately successful in the service of the emperor, was barely in the middle of his life and already sick of it . . . when his young son died during that spring's smallpox epidemic, he found no solace . . . as if the man he once was had departed with the smoke from his son's funeral pyre . . ."
I learned from the jacket that the story is set in 11th century Japan, and that it is the seventh book in a series featuring Sugawara Akitada, an official in the Ministry of Justice in the capital of Heian-Kyo (modern Kyoto).  Normally I like to start a series in the beginning, but in this case I found the character of Akitada, and the setting, so intriguing, that I wanted to read it immediately.  After a week of Victorian England, I was also very much in the mood for something completely different.

Riding through a stretch of lonely forest at dusk, on the eve of the feast of O-bon, when the spirits of the dead return to their homes, Akitada hears a child weeping.  For a moment he thinks the small figure he sees could be his son Yori, but he soon realizes that it is no ghost but a child, lost, hungry, and in rags.  Akitada takes the child to a near-by town, feeds him, buys him new clothes and toys, and finds solace in feeling like a father again.  He is later devastated when two peasants appear out of nowhere and accuse him of kidnapping their son.  He cannot believe the child is really theirs, so in part to defend himself he begins to investigate the child's background.  He learns that there may be a connection through a famous courtesan, Peony, to the local lord's family, the Masudas.  According to the townsfolk, Peony drowned herself after the young Lord Masuda's death, though there are rumors that his death was not a natural one.  Returning to his home in the capital, Akitada discovers other connections to a powerful lord, Fujiwara Sadanori, who was also once Peony's patron. 

Though his investigation is completely unofficial, through it he begins to find his way back to life after his son's death.  It also helps him break down the barriers that loss has left between his wife Tamako and himself, and with the members of his household.  This being the seventh book, clearly there is a lot of history in these relationships, which gives the story an emotional depth. I want to know more about these people, especially Akitada and Tamako, and I'm looking forward to reading the other books in the series.

I know very little about the history of Japan in this period, though when I was a child, one of my favorite books was One Hundred Eight Bells, a story of a girl growing up in Toyko in the post-war period.  (I was thrilled to find my own copy a few years ago, though the internet.)  The author includes a "Historical Note" at the end, which gives some context and additional information.  Though this is a historical novel, the setting is only sketched in, as a framework for the strong characterizations and the twists of the plot.  This is not a "ye olde tymes" book, and because of my own lack of knowledge about Japan's past, I would not have known the time-frame of the story, if not for the jacket blurb.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I already have the first book in the series from the library.


  1. This does sound quite good! I've never had an interest in Japanese history or this time period, but it sounds like you don't have to in order to enjoy this series.

  2. I like historical mysteries (Ellis Peters, Sharan Newman) but generally I know at least a little about the context. This was completely new to me, and I really enjoyed it.

  3. Thanks, Lisa May.

  4. Thank you, for taking the time to read & comment - and also for such a good book.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!