Political intrigue, jealousy, revenge, and murder, set in the world of eleventh-century Japan: these are some of the items on the menu for the feast for the mind that is I.J. Parker’s latest novel featuring his famous sleuth Sugawara Akitada, Black Arrow. The Emperor has sent Akitada to the frigid region of Echigo to assume the provisional governorship, and the locals give him a less than friendly welcoming. With winter closing in and snow threatening to isolate Echigo from the rest of Japan - and the body count piling up - Akitada must discover who is behind the deaths before he has an open revolt on his hands and is sent back to the Emperor in disgrace. His own life and that of his pregnant wife hang in the balance, as well as the Emperor’s life and the very future of Japan.
What is the importance of the deaths of a mother and child that occurred thirty-one years ago? The prologue, titled “Fatal Arrow,” starts Black Arrow off with a bang: a dual murder committed with an arrow. The deaths affect the order of succession in the Uesugi clan, a family with major roots in Japan’s history, one composed of famous warriors who helped protect Japan and make it become powerful. Also, they own much of the land around the small village of Takata, where Akitada has his governorship. Their manor is eloquently described as being “a stronghold that hovered above the plain like a huge hawk perched on a rock, its wings spread in readiness for its prey.” The warlord Uesugi Makio, the head of the clan since his father was incapacitated by “madness,” ostensibly offers Akitada courtesy and a measure of respect. But when Akitada experiences stomach cramps after a banquet there, he suspects that he has been mildly poisoned in an attempt to drive him away, as has been the fate of many previous governors.
Reports have indicated that Echigo has had good recent grain harvests, “yet the granary seems nearly empty,” as he says to Makio. This troubling piece of news is brushed off by Uesugi, who states “We have been storing the provincial grain privately for years now.” At the Uesugi manor, Akitada hears about the yamabushi, a group of men who “practice both Buddhism and exorcism.” They live in the mountains and can withstand the intense cold of the region, going shoeless even in the snow. These holy men, who are also learned in herbal medicines, take in the dregs of society, giving refuge to the poor and lawbreakers alike. But what is their strange tie to the Uesugi clan and the mysteries surrounding the death of the landlord of a local inn?
Many obstacles stand in Akitada’s way of arriving at the truth. Two of three men confess to the murder of the innkeeper, but Akitada knows that the confessions were beaten out of them. Akitada’s friend Hitomaro tries to get Akitada to investigate further, saying “There’s no way those poor devils could have done it. I’ll never believe it. You’ve got to investigate, sir. It’s just common decency.” That will be an uphill battle, though, because the murder weapon was found in the possession of Takagi, a half-witted son of a farmer, and each of the men had nuggets of gold with them when arrested, presumed to have been stolen from the dead innkeeper, Mr. Sato, whose throat was slit.
The death count eventually mounts to five bodies, and one of those corpses has been mutilated by the hands being cut off and the face bashed in. Talk of angry ghosts pervade the tale; there seem to be plenty of reasons for them to be angry, since they have been denied justice. One servant, when Akitada throws open a shutter to look out at the snowy white landscape, declares “Come away, sir. They say the ghosts of the dead cry for justice.” Black Arrow is an excellent story of mystery and suspense. If you like historical mysteries, brilliant writing, and tales of conspiracy and suspense in general, you should highly enjoy Black Arrow. The adventures and deductive abilities of Akitada are on par with some of the best detectives ever written about.