Though 11th-century Japan has no professional sleuths, nobleman Sugawara Akitada has earned a reputation as the next best thing, a gifted amateur whose detective work offers a welcome change of pace from his humdrum routine as a government clerk. Now Akitada’s mentor, elderly Imperial University law professor Hirata, invites him to help unravel a complicated blackmail plot involving two other members of the faculty. Thinking it may be his last chance to spend time with the frail Hirata—not to mention Hirata’s lovely daughter, childhood friend Tamako—Akitada eagerly accepts, accompanied by his servant Tora, a former highwayman. The university buzzes with scandal, subplots, and faculty feuds fueled by hotheaded, heavy-drinking Chinese literature professor Oe. Posing as a colleague, Akitada probes the college culture while Tora prowls the dangerous tenderloin of the city, Heian Kyo, and partakes of its often forbidden pleasures. By the time Hirata reveals that he invited Akitada only as a potential suitor for Tamako, his protégé is up to his neck in murder. The victims include wealthy Prince Yoakira, beautiful musician/suspected prostitute Omaki, the waterfront beggar Umakai, and, after a night of drinking and peer-bashing, the universally hated Oe. Smug police inspector Kobe is determined to link the murders, but the methodical Akitada gathers evidence that points to a contrary conclusion.
A debut whose roots are in a Shamus Award–winning story from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The slow, measured prose suits Akitada but not the devilish Tora, and the whole production would benefit from less plot and more oomph.