Akitada and his team (The Hell Screen, 2003, etc.) probe two mysteries in 11th-century Japan.
An elegant, oblique prologue set decades before the main action finds Death preying on a young woman and her frolicking baby in a flower-laden forest clearing. Then in 1015 a.d., the three lieutenants of Sugarawa Akitada—Tora, Hitomaro and Genba—journey to the remote province of Echigo and the town of Takata to look into the murder of elderly innkeeper Mr. Sato. Recently appointed governor of the remote and somewhat lawless Echigo, Akitada recognizes his need to earn the locals’ trust if he’s to bring the citizens into line. When the lieutenants arrive, they see corrupt judges ready to condemn a hapless trio of unlucky guests of the inn. Questioning by Hitomaro and company reveals the three as the unlikeliest of murder suspects. Not so Sato’s randy young widow or members of a local gang that’s been robbing every business in sight. (The studly Tora gets the inside scoop on the inn’s doings by sleeping with Kiyo, Mrs. Sato’s maid.) Akitada himself investigates, but the case is complicated by the disappearance of an elderly servant, the murder of a prostitute and subplots involving an army deserter and a dangerous warlord.
Akitada’s fourth adventure, as beautifully written as his first three, keeps his wife Tamako in the background but adroitly develops his three sidekicks.