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Life and times of a Heian-Period crime sleuth


Scrolling back in history

THE DRAGON SCROLL, by I.J. Parker. New York: Penguin, 2005, 432 pp., $13.00 (paper).

Now beginning a new series with Penguin, Parker has just released “The Dragon Scroll.” While the third full-length novel to be published, it is the first, chronologically, in her series and takes protagonist Akitada back to the beginning of his career.

Accompanied by his elderly retainer Seimei, Akitada is dispatched to Kisarazu in remote Kazusa Province (present-day Chiba Prefecture) to investigate the disappearance of three consecutive years of tax shipments.

Attacked by robbers on the Tokaido (highway), Akitada is rescued by a gallant military deserter, Tora, who is eventually recruited as a servant. Akitada’s audit soon absolves the governor of the province from any wrongdoing, and suspicion shifts to others, including the head priest of an unusually prosperous temple.

On the way to a dazzling conclusion, “The Dragon Scroll” serves up crime and detection, along with a satisfying mixture of comedy, tragedy, adventure and romance.

“Research, research, research — enormous amounts in the beginning,” is how I.J. Parker, author of “The Dragon Scroll,” explains her approach to writing mystery stories set in Japan’s Heian Period (794-1185 A.D.).

Born and raised in Germany, Ingrid J. Parker attended Munich University, married an American and obtained postgraduate degrees in the United States. She taught at universities until retirement in 2000, after which she turned to writing full time. She had already begun to immerse herself in medieval Japanese history and write mysteries 15 years earlier; but it was not until 1997 that her short story featuring Sugawara Akitada, a minor official of the Ministry of Justice in 11th-century Kyoto who dabbles in investigating crimes, made its appearance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. In 2000, Parker was named recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award for Best P.I. Short Story. Two full-length novels, “Rashomon Gate” (2002) and “The Hell Screen” (2003), both from St. Martin’s Minotaur, were to follow.

From her home in Virginia, Parker fielded questions about her efforts to bring her Heian detective back to life for a modern audience.

I understand you haven’t been to Japan yet. Why did you decide to set your novels here, as opposed to China or some other country?

I have a tendency to do the not-so-obvious or easy thing. Besides, I believe that my European background has something to do with the fact that I am more interested in cultures unlike my own. Ancient China had already been covered by Dutch mystery author Robert van Gulik, and I was involved professionally with Japanese classical literature for World Lit classes I was teaching. The two enthusiasms met.

Why did you decide to set your novels in the Heian Period?

The later periods involve swashbuckling and social upheaval. That was not my primary interest, though I do use physical confrontations sometimes. I like to work with human psychology, and the Heian Period was politically stable and allowed for some introspection. Then there is the question of law enforcement. Later periods seem pretty much a shambles by Western standards, and mysteries focus on creating order out of chaos. Also, of course, there is quite a bit of good primary material available in translation.

How would you contrast your protagonist, Akitada, with, say, the swashbuckling samurai who appear in Kurosawa films?

The concepts of Bushido existed in Heian only for rural warrior families. Akitada is a city-bred civil servant and intellectual, a descendant of an old noble family whose values were inspired by China. He is no physical coward, but he is primarily an intellectual. Being introspective and full of doubts, he lacks the bravado of a samurai hero.

He is an outsider in his own world and struggles to perform according to social norms and his own concept of duty and social order, but he finds himself continuously confronted with situations that cannot be solved by the simple formulas he was trained in. Consequently, he is very ill at ease with himself.

If Sugawara is not a hard-boiled literary figure, then what aspects of his character enable him to go after criminals and bring them to justice?

A sense of justice, a sense of duty, a distrust of the supernatural, curiosity, and empathy with humans in all classes. Akitada occasionally prejudges individuals, based on aristocratic assumptions about the common people, but he always manages to rise above the taught values. It’s his fallibility that causes his personal pain and insecurity, and his breaking of the social rules that threatens his career.

How much of the time involved in the writing of your books is needed to research historical details? Are there many occasions when you’re frustrated because such details are difficult to obtain?

I used to expend enormous amounts of time in the early years just on getting a grasp of the culture. But I’m still often frustrated; very little is available about the lives of the common people. Also, early sources are unreliable. Still, I guess it’s getting easier. At any rate, the story of Akitada has become a great deal more important than the historical detail, and I generally know where my notes are.

Which other writers’ works have you enjoyed who have produced appealing historical detectives?

Van Gulik of course; extraordinarily concise and so sure of his history, but with such a knack for making the material palatable for Western readers. Comparing his translation of a Chinese novel, “Dee Gong An (Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee),” with his own novels is a lesson in how to bring such material to life for Western readers.

I also like Lindsey Davis’ “Falco” series very much for rather similar reasons. Her Romans are recognizable characters by modern standards. None of the other historical mysteries have impressed me quite that much, though I do like Dale Furutani’s “Matsuyama Kaze” trilogy for its straightforwardness. Essentially, you have to break some rules and do some violence to the material to create a believable world for modern readers.