In Shamus Award-winning mystery author’s I.J. Parker’s previous work, “Island of Exiles,” Heian Period (794-1185) official Sugawara Akitada embarked on a harrowing undercover investigation of a suspicious death on Sado Island. Assuming the guise of a convict, the scholarly Akitada soon found himself in dire straits, and was rescued from almost certain death by a fellow convict named Haseo, who was fatally injured without ever revealing his full name or family background.
Now back in Kyoto, Akitada has settled down to a mundane life as a bureaucrat, in an office with an overbearing superior and scheming subordinate. Things might have muddled along indefinitely if not for two key developments: Akitada’s trusted lieutenant, Tora, is detained on suspicion of murdering a blind female street singer; and Kyoto is fast emptying out, as anyone with the means to leave is fleeing a devastating smallpox epidemic. This gives the story a noir quality reminiscent of Robert van Gulik’s 1965 Judge Dee mystery “The Willow Pattern,” set in Tang Dynasty China’s capital during an epidemic.