I.J. Parker's The Masuda Affair is her seventh historical featuring Sugawara Akitada in 11th-century Japan.
What is it about Japan in the 11th century that interests you?
Heian Japan was a period of considerable stability before things came apart; the age of the shoguns and warlords began at the end of the 12th century. The time was characterized by a central government under an emperor and structured on Chinese patterns. It also produced some of the greatest literature of Japan. For such an early time (in comparison to Europe, for example), the Japanese were amazingly advanced in their culture, education, and forms of government. But the flaws in the Heian system were also numerous and lend themselves to exploration in the novels. What most Americans know about Japan comes from WWII and the geisha culture. The Heian period is incorrectly dismissed as ancient and backward.
How did your detective, Sugawara Akitada, develop?
I began with a rather distant protagonist who was wiser than the average man. This idea I discarded swiftly in favor of a man who has flaws and whose thoughts and views are shared with the reader. Later on, the novel itself had become more important than the mystery plot. The series may now be read as a single account of one man's struggles, failures, and triumphs over a lifetime. Admittedly, I've only got him to about 35 years of age, but already I imagine an old, lonely, and disillusioned Akitada.
What was crime solving at his time like?
Historical accounts deal with crime and punishment, with the police organization, and with the role of judges. The system was originally imported from China, but with the significant difference that, in Japan, Buddhism ruled and did not allow capital punishment. Punishment therefore ranged from whipping to exile and hard labor. As a rule, suspects were arrested and questioned with the use of torture, and sometimes with shamans contacting the dead victims. Forensics, in terms of deducing facts from physical evidence, was known, but was hardly scientific. A 13th-century Chinese treatise (translated into Japanese) recommends baking or boiling skeletal bones in order to make wounds visible. Akitada proceeds with common sense and logic to arrive at the truth.
How have the books been received in Japan?
The Japanese don't seem to be terribly interested in historical mysteries about their own country. They prefer current hard-boiled American crime. I do get a bit of fan mail from Americans staying in Japan. They seem to use the books to fill in background because tourist sites of the period, and even landscapes, have almost totally disappeared.