cover image THE HELL SCREEN: A Mystery of Ancient Japan

THE HELL SCREEN: A Mystery of Ancient Japan

Ingrid J. Parker, . . St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-312-28795-5

Fascinating historical detail and well-drawn characters distinguish Shamus-winner Parker's second Japanese mystery (after 2002's well-received Rashomon Gate). On his way back to the capital city of Heian Kyo (now Kyoto), Lord Sugawara Akitada, a government official with a knack for stumbling into crime, stops at a monastery to shake off the cold and get a few hours sleep. Other guests of the Buddhist monks include a well-dressed woman and her companion, a troupe of actors and a renowned artist. After Akitada views the artist's work-in-progress, aptly called the "Hell Screen," his sleep is filled with nightmarish images and a bloodcurdling scream. Not sure whether he was dreaming, Akitada wanders around the monastery but finds nothing amiss. After an early morning departure, Akitada arrives at his ancestral home to visit his dying mother and soon learns of a heinous murder. Realizing the crime took place at the monastery where he slept, Akitada can't resist investigating. Many complications and subplots ensue, all rendered in expertly evocative prose. Parker's remarkable command of 11th-century Japanese history—from the rituals of the royal court to the minutia of daily life within Japan's often rigid caste system—makes for an excellent whodunit. Readers will be enchanted by Akitada, an honorable sleuth who proves more progressive than his time. (Aug. 4)