Mystery, history and excitement in old Japan
Death on an Autumn River, by I.J. Parker. Kindle edition, Amazon Digital Services, 2012, $7.99
"Death on an Autumn River" is I.J. Parker's ninth full-length novel in the ongoing saga of Heian Era (794-1185) Ministry of Justice official Sugawara Akitada. Accompanied by Sadenari, a junior clerk, Akitada travels by boat from Kyoto to Osaka port to investigate suspected customs violations that may point to piracy.
The story draws out the sharp contrasts between the capital, Kyoto, and rough-and-tumble commercial town of Osaka, where Akitada's investigation is stymied from the get-go. Are the recalcitrant local authorities lazy, incompetent or in collusion with the troublemakers?
The story also contains a parallel investigation into the suspicious death by drowning of a young female who appeared to have been working as a prostitute on an island in the Yodo River, an angle that gives the author an opportunity to introduce the Koreans who immigrated to the Kansai area, where they served as transmitters of culture from mainland Asia.
After the troublesome young clerk Sadenari disappears, Akitada finds himself isolated and in trouble. Reinforcements arrive in the form of his deputy Tora, a rough-and-tumble former soldier, but the two are forced to elude several close brushes with death before finally putting the villains out of business.
In this episode Seimei, the elderly retainer to Akitada's family who figures from the beginning of the series, finally dies, and by the story's conclusion the Sugawara household is on the verge of recruiting an unusual new deputy with unorthodox investigative skills.
While set in Heian Japan, Parker's novels invite favorable comparison with the Judge Dee mysteries, set in China's Tang Era, penned by the late Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik. Both authors are Europeans who have adopted the Asian literary model of "righteous officials" who battle corruption while showing sympathy for the downtrodden.
Please note that Parker's book is currently being sold only in electronic form. However, Kindle reader software can be downloaded for free from Amazon.com, enabling it to be read on any Windows or Mac PC, tablet computer or smartphone. Several of Parker's previously published short stories and novelettes are now also available for purchase electronically.