Originally Published 2005
Sugawara Akitada #1
Followed by Rashomon Gate
In an adventure filled with highway bandits, unscrupulous politicians, and renegade monks, The Dragon Scroll introduces readers to the lively world of eleventh-century Japan and an irrepressible hero—Sugawara Akitada. On his first official assignment, Akitada—an impoverished nobleman and earnest young government clerk in the Ministry of Justice—is sent from the capital city on a nearly impossible mission to the distant province of Kazusa to discover why tax convoys are disappearing. In the politically murky world of the Japanese court, he has been set up to fail. Against the odds, the ever-resourceful Akitada, his elderly servant Seimei, and his impudent bodyguard Tora are determined to fulfill their mission and discover the truth in a town of dangerous secrets.
The subject of today’s post is a book that holds a special place in my heart and that certainly played a large part in reigniting my interest in the mystery genre. For that reason what follows is perhaps not really so much a review as a celebration of a book and a character that mean a lot to me and while I will try to discuss the merits of the book in its own right, I do have to give a warning that I may not be entirely impartial.
To explain why I have to take you back and explain my relationship with the mystery genre. As some of you may remember, I began reading mysteries at a young age. Early favorites included the Three Investigators and the Five Found-Outers though I also read a few classics of the genre. Getting older I transitioned to reading whatever titles I could find on my father’s bookcases which meant I dipped into stuff like Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries.
But then during my college and university years things changed. I didn’t exactly stop reading but my relationship with books changed significantly and I found that I was more focused on reading to support my learning than for the love of it. This continued after I graduated and started working, particularly because the type of work I was in at that time left little time for recreation.
In 2008 though everything changed for me. In that year I got married and emigrated to the United States where I spent eighteen months waiting to receive my employment visa and, for the first time in years, I had time on my hands. I decided to fill that time by watching a whole lot of Japanese cinema, developing an interest in Samurai movies, and from there I decided it would be cool to read some fiction set in that era.
I started out with Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro mysteries which were set during the era of the Tokugawa shogunate. In researching that series however I happened upon an article about I. J. Parker’s relatively new series which was set several centuries earlier during the Heian period of Japanese history.
The protagonist of the series is Sugawara no Akitada, a junior official in the Ministry of Justice who in this book arrives in the Kazusa province to investigate why several shipments of tax revenue have not made it to the capital. What complicates his mission is that the provincial governor who appears to be a prime suspect is about to become the emperor’s father-in-law, putting Akitada in a difficult and potentially career-threatening position.
A further complication arises when the former governor of the province, who had reached out to Akitada to seek a private meeting, is found dead having apparently fallen in his library. Suspecting foul play, Akitada decides to investigate this matter too with the help of his elderly family retainer Seimei and an impudent, womanizing soldier he meets on the road named Tora.
The least interesting of the various plot elements is the question of what has become of the tax shipments. Here the story suffers a little from a lack of suspects, essentially allowing the reader two possibilities, but this story strand leads to further, more challenging questions such as how the money is being hidden and transported. It likely won’t wow puzzle readers but I found it a solid starting point that justified Akitada’s involvement in the story.
I was more interested in the questions raised by the death of the former governor and the mystery about the information that he wished to share with Akitada. There are a few reasons for this, not least that I always enjoy seeing how a detective works out that a death that appears to have been natural or an accident is actually murder without witnesses or clear clue pointing at that explanation. Akitada begins with a suspicion but he is able to expand on it through logic and observation, helping to establish him as a skillful (if still fairly inexperienced) investigator.
There is a third strand to the mystery that is principally investigated by Tora that relates to some strange goings on in the streets of the provincial capitol and that introduces us to a set of characters from its underworld. Here I want to avoid giving away any firm details as it is the least expected and most creative part of the novel but I want to give some credit to Parker for the way in which this is developed. Essentially Tora’s investigation will be presented as its own story strand, incorporating different levels of society, and it runs parallel to the main investigation. Typically there is eventually some crossover between his adventures and those of his master and it is no different here but a large part of the fun comes from trying to figure out precisely how those threads will eventually converge.
This establishes a structure that runs throughout most of the novels in this series in which Akitada and Tora end up investigating several different puzzles that seem unconnected. Eventually we learn a piece of information that bridges these plots, drawing the action together and presenting what we know in a different light. I will say that The Dragon Scroll is not quite as intricately structured as some later entries in the series as many of the connections can be worked out relatively early in the novel but while it is not particularly surprising, I still found it to be quite entertaining.
Perhaps the thing I like most about this series is the development and evolution of its protagonist, Akitada. Born into a noble but impoverished family, I love the complexities and contrasts Parker finds in the character. As with the plot structuring, I think later titles in the series showcase this better (and explore some of the less likable parts of his character) but there is still plenty of dimension to admire and appreciate here.
This story serves as a good introduction to the character because of the way it pushes him out of his comfort zone. When he travels to Kazusa he finds himself stumped by some awkward social situations he has to resolve according to proper etiquette. Some of the situations he finds himself in are quite fascinating, exposing different aspects of Japanese culture and society such as attitudes towards the Buddhist clergy and the nobility.
The most awkward situations Akitada finds himself in are those which involve women. He is pretty inexperienced in that area anyway but in the course of this story he finds himself attracted to two quite different women and unsure how he should respond and where to take things. These two situations explore different aspects of Akitada’s personality, personal background and values and help to bring him to life.
The supporting characters of Tora and Seimei have an interesting and complicated relationship that also evolves over the course of this novel. Seimei has a relatively limited range as a character, often falling into particular patterns of behavior though Parker gifts him a wonderful and surprising moment later in the adventure that I find extremely entertaining and shows a slightly different side to him. Tora, by contrast, is a fuller creation and I enjoy the energy and passion he injects into the story, even if some readers find it unbelievable that he would be so openly insubordinate to Akitada.
So, how do I feel about The Dragon Scroll on revisiting it (for the third time)? Well, I think it succeeds as an introduction to these characters and the world. The mystery itself is quite serviceable, if a little slanted towards adventure storytelling, though I think that the style feels appropriate to the historical setting. Perhaps the storytelling is a little slow, sensual and detail-oriented though once again I found that fit the tone and setting of the story very well.
Based on this I can certainly see why I was so drawn to read more about these characters and why it spurred me on to develop an interest in historical mystery fiction. My memory of the series is that the next novel, Rashomon Gate, was even more compelling and I will look forward to revisiting that one at some point soon.
Note: The series order for the Akitada mysteries can be confusing as Parker’s first publisher opted to release the stories out of chronological order. The Dragon Scroll is the intended starting point and when Parker changed publishers it was issued as the first title in the series.