Title: The Dragon Scroll
Author: I.J. Parker
Publisher: Penguin, 2005
Paperback, 340 pages
Genre: Historical Mystery, #1 Sugawara Akitada mystery
Source: Purchased at Bookcloseouts
First Line: There were two watchers in the garden that night.
When author I.J. Parker contacted me about reading her latest historical mystery, The Masuda Affair, I thought honesty would be the best policy. Explaining that I tend to be a stickler for reading mystery series in order, I did say that I had a copy of her first Sugawara Akitada mystery on my shelves, and I'd be more than happy to read and review it. That was quite all right with the author, and I'm grateful that the author gave me the tiny shove I needed to begin this series.
Like many other people in the late 1970s, I devoured James Clavell's Shōgun. I loved the characters, the story, the history-- and the mini-series based upon Clavell's novel cemented my new found interest in Japanese history.
Author I.J. Parker's mystery series is set in eleventh-century Japan, roughly 500 years before Clavell's novel. In The Dragon Scroll, young Sugawara Akitada is an impoverished nobleman and a government clerk in the Ministry of Justice. His first assignment is to travel to the remote province of Kazusa to track down the thieves who have stolen the last three years' worth of tax shipments. To be blunt about it, he's being set up to fail.
Traveling along the Tokaido Road with his older family retainer, Seimei, the two are soon joined by Tora, a young working class man who, for some unknown reason, doesn't have the papers necessary to travel within Japan. Against the mutterings of Seimei, Akitada decides to trust Tora and obtains a set of identity papers for him.
In no time, the three men are in the capital of Kazusa. The former governor of the province requests a meeting with Akitada, but before that can take place, the man is murdered. Akitada finds himself beset by bandits, rogues, and shifty politicians, but he is determined to bring both thieves and murderers to justice.
This book has a wonderful sense of pace-- and a wonderful cast of characters. Akitada, Seimei and Tora play off each other very well, and Parker puts a sharp sense of humor to good use. Her descriptive powers remind me of Japanese woodcuts, like in this scene:
Above them the wind swept ragged smoky clouds along; before them the charcoal-dark ocean boiled and subsided with a continuous roar, vomiting up dirty yellow foam and swallowing it again; and all about them swirled and blew the spray and the everlasting rain, tearing at their cloaks and slapping the wet, salt-laden wisps of their hats against their stinging cheeks.
Parker has told a story with such a strong sense of time and place and populated it with characters who are smart enough, funny enough and cantankerous enough to live on the page. I have to know what happens to Akitada and Seimei and Tora next. I have to.
The only bad thing about being given the necessary push to read this first book in the series is that now I want to read them all, one right after the other. Books have always been my "Lay's Potato Chips".