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Japan’s ancient and modern sleuths deftly nab the culprit

by Mark Schreiber

THE FIRES OF THE GODS, by I.J. Parker. Severn House, Surry, 2011, 247 pp., $28.95, (hardcover), THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X, by Keigo Higashino. Minotaur, 2011, 298 pp., $24.99 (hardcover)

“The Fires of the Gods,” the eighth installment of I.J. Parker’s saga of Heian Period official Sugawara Akitada, begins as a study in the abuses of power. The protagonist is removed from his position in the justice ministry by an incompetent appointee with connections to Kiyowara Kane, a powerful minister.

Akitada, whose wife Tamako is expecting, can ill afford to lose his job. But when he goes to the official’s mansion to ask that his dismissal be reconsidered, Kiyowara is found dead and Akitada — who indeed had a motive for killing him — falls under suspicion. This defines the rest of the plot as investigator Akitada finds himself obliged to prove his own innocence, all the while under the scrutiny of those who want to put him away.

This situation severely tests Akitada’s heretofore cordial relationship with Kobe, the Kyoto police superintendent who had collaborated with Akitada on several previous cases.

In addition to Parker’s usual cast of characters, including Akitada’s outspoken wife Tamako, elderly retainer Seikei, feisty deputy Tora and Gemba, a hulking ex-wrestler, “The Fires of the Gods” introduces the dark side of the Kyoto underclass, characters who would have done justice to one of the old black-and-white Kurosawa epics, who range from venal clergymen and a gang of thugs running a protection racket to ruthless merchants determined to enrich themselves by the misfortunes of others.

Akitada is not so much a detective as what traditional Asian literature terms a “righteous official.” Those familiar with Robert van Gulik’s still-popular “Judge Dee” series set in 8th century Tang Dynasty China (published in the 1950s and ’60s) will enjoy Parker’s works set in 11th century Heian Japan (794-1185), both for the similarities and the contrasts.

Battle of wits

Yasuko Hanaoka, an attractive divorcee, has put her life as a nightclub hostess behind her and is struggling to make ends meet, raising a teenage daughter while working behind the counter at a mom-and-pop restaurant producing box lunches.

Then Togashi, her abusive, good-for-nothing ex-husband, shows up at her apartment, demanding money.

When he threatens the daughter it’s the last straw. Yasuko strangles him.

Enter Ishigami, her next-door neighbor, a dysfunctional high school math teacher with a secret crush on Yasuko. Ishigami convinces Yasuko to let him dispose of Togashi’s body so she can avoid arrest.

To accomplish this, Ishigami engages in what could be described as reverse engineering, creating a new crime scene in the hope of throwing the police off the trail. He also attempts to construct a nearly airtight alibi for Yasuko and her daughter.

Detective Kusanagi, suspicious by nature, bides his time and slowly works to connect the dots, waiting for the perpetrators to make a slip. In real life, police are far less likely to be so well mannered and patient.

Yasuko and her daughter are eventually shunted aside and the investigation metamorphoses into a game of cat and mouse between two intellectuals who had attended the same elite university: Ishigami and Dr. Manabu Yukawa, who just happens to be Kusanagi’s mentor.

Ishigami’s success in covering up the crime depends on his ability to dispose of a corpse without attracting notice — no easy task for someone living in central Tokyo without a private car.

While Higashino’s plot is a bit contrived and he cherry-picks forensics (completely disregarding very basic telltale evidence provided by postmortem lividity), “The Devotion of Suspect X” is an enjoyable read. Although it’s set in present-day Tokyo, the formula of a brainy university professor mentoring the young homicide investigator is reminiscent of Rex Stout whodunits in the 1930s featuring master sleuth Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, but minus the gargantuan Wolfe’s personal quirks.