Originally Published in 2002
Note: Though this is the second novel in the series, it was published before its predecessor.
Preceded by The Dragon Scroll
Followed by Black Arrow
Akitada, a minor official in the Ministry of Justice, toils at his dull career when a former professor begs him to look into a case of blackmail at the Imperial University. He is quickly drawn into a web of gossip and rivalry before being sidetracked by the murder of a young woman belonging to the lower classes and the disappearance of young student’s high-ranking grandfather. He and his faithful servant Tora pursue both cases eagerly, but the body count rises, and danger stalks them. When Akitada loses his heart to a young woman and wins her against all odds, a murderer has marked him as the next victim.
Like its predecessor, Rashomon Gate is a novel that presents multiple cases for the reader to solve. Each case appears to be quite separate from the others and so the trick is to see if we can understand how the various stories overlap and fit together.
The most pressing case for Akitada is presented to him by the man who took him into his household during the period when his own father had disowned him. That man, a scholar at the university, had discovered a troubling note slipped into his gown that appeared to suggest a threat of blackmail. The assumption is that the message was intended for someone else but the question is who is the intended victim and why?
There is also a murder case to solve when a young woman is found dead having apparently been strangled. Much of the work on that is done by Akitada’s servant Tora with the case causing him to cross paths with merchants and enter the pleasure houses of the Willow district.
Then finally there is the strange disappearance of a prince from a shrine. The prince had entered alone and chanted his prayers but when his travelling companions entered afterwards they only found his empty robe. The building was thoroughly checked for exits and there was no sign of an abduction or murder so what happened to him and why were his companions so sure he transcended his form?
The interplay between these various cases is quite clever although it takes a while for it to become clear just how they are connected. The last of these three mysteries is perhaps the most intangible for much of the story as it is discussed in the background until events push Akitada to take a more direct interest in solving it.
The disappearance can be viewed as being within the impossible crime subgenre though it is not featured enough in the novel to satisfy reading it for that element alone. Essentially this is a watched room and I think the explanation of what happened is quite clever, particularly as it employs some variations on some familiar tricks to make it work in this historical period and cultural setting.
The murder of the young woman is a more earthy case and it really provides us with a window into several different aspects of Japanese life in this period. Perhaps the most significant of these is its presentation of the criminal justice system and the discussion about the use of torture to extort confessions. Akitada clashes with the official in charge of the investigation about their different methods and opinions about whether the priority is to ensure justice for everyone in the case or to risk harming innocents while tracking down and punishing the guilty.
Parker presents both sides of this argument in one of the book’s most powerful sequences – the one in which this case is solved. In it we see the efficiency and speed of achieving results but we are also reminded of the cost to those who were suspected of the crime. This is a tension that is often present in these novels and I think it helps establish that Akitada is something of an outlier in his culture, at least in some regards.
Another theme that is discussed quite effectively in this part of the novel is that of social class and the hierarchy in Japanese society. Tora ends up passing through multiple layers of society and a few locations where those different classes meet and interact, and in some cases that leads to some interesting comparisons with his master such as in their different attitudes to pursuing romance.
This case is arguably the most straightforward of those on offer. There is little deduction that the reader can perform to be ahead of the sleuth – the significance of some key parts of the evidence is not recognized until the point at which it is solved. Still, I think the case is important not only in the way it overlaps with the other cases but because of the light it throws on both Tora and Akitada’s respective characters, particularly in its immediate aftermath.
The question of the threatening message is the focus of much of the adventure, not only giving Akitada an interesting case to look into but it also prompts some intriguing character development.
I have already alluded to the discussion of his years as a student in which he was banished from the family home which I think this novel explains well. We understand, for instance, his feelings of gratitude and obligation to his mentor Professor Hirata and why that proves decisive in convincing him to get involved in this mystery in the first place.
As part of his investigation Akitada becomes a teacher at the university and we get to know several members of the faculty and student body, each of whom has a strong personality. There are a few more surprises along the way, not least the discovery of an additional body in quite striking circumstances.
While I found this historical and cultural background to be quite interesting, I do think that for much of the book this is the least compelling of the three major cases. Part of that relates to a sense that this plotline lacks urgency and blackmail feels quite small compared to the other crimes on offer here. I did appreciate however that this plot ends up prompting several significant character moments for Akitada, causing several changes to take place in his household that will expand the cast of ‘regulars’.
In addition to the mystery plots, I appreciate the time and effort Parker puts into developing Akitada’s household. Here we see him interact with his mother, get a glimpse of his sisters and see changes to the household’s roster of servants. Perhaps most memorable of all however is the romance storyline which is heartfelt rather than melodramatic or sensational, leading to a resolution that seems earned and sincere.
When I first read Rashomon Gate I was struck by its interesting cases and strong characterization. I am happy to report that I was just as impressed with it on a repeat reading and that for the most part it lived up to my expectations. At this point the household had really taken shape well and I looked forward to the events of the next book, Black Arrow.
The Verdict: Akitada’s second adventure is even stronger than his first, fleshing out his household as he solves several puzzling cases.