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The Hell Screen: A Mystery of 11th-Century Japan Featuring Sugawara Akitada (Penguin Mysteries) Paperback – June 24, 2008

4.5 out of 5 stars 40 customer reviews
Book 5 of 14 in the Akitada Mysteries Series

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Parker has crafted another exotic and compelling mystery set in eleventh-century Japan and featuring government official and sometime detective Akitada Sugawara. Journeying home to attend to his dying mother, Akitada seeks shelter at a monastic temple during a storm. Exhausted and disoriented, he is inextricably drawn to an artistically rendered, yet horrifically realistic, hell screen depicting a variety of gruesome death scenes. When a young woman is murdered during the night, Akitada becomes embroiled^B in a complex investigation that involves members of his own family. Exposing the brazen theft of an identity, the wily Akitada is able to untangle the strands of a cleverly plotted series of murders. This intriguing combination of history and suspense is distinguished by a wealth of authentic cultural detail. Margaret Flanagan
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; 1st edition (June 24, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143035622
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143035626
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.9 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #732,614 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on February 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover
In a dramatic opening scene, a woman and an unconscious man wait in the darkness of a monastery cell for the woman's lover, who arrives bearing the body of a another young woman. Annoyed when her lover shows signs of weakness and has qualms about beheading the corpse, the woman begins the gory process herself. The reader quickly becomes caught up in the action as a former official in the Justice Department, also spending the night at the same monastery, begins an investigation into the murder. Clever deduction, additional gory murders, threats to the life of the investigator, and his single-minded dedication to unmasking the murderers, while combatting professional jealousies among his peers, make this an exciting addition to the traditional murder mystery genre.
Only the structure of the novel is traditional, however, for this murder takes place in eleventh century Japan, and the detective is Lord Akitada Sugawara. Seen primarily as a family man, he is fully drawn, a man with foibles and failings, in addition to high ideals of honor. As Akitada investigates the murder, the author subtly develops the intellectual climate of the times: the use of hell screens in Buddhist monasteries to instill the fear of death, the value placed on antiquities and the scholarly life, and the integration of art (calligraphy, painting, elaborate embroidering, and flute-playing) into the lives of the characters.
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Format: Hardcover
I.J. Parker's "Rashomon Gate" was a solid, multilayered mystery that strays away from the typical twentieth-century American/British settings. The attention to detail, humor and horror intertwine to make her second book "The Hell Screen: A Mystery of Ancient Japan" even more likable than the first.
Sugawara Akitada is returning to Heian Kyo (Kyoto) after a time as a provisional governer far from home. He rides ahead of his beloved wife and young son, since his mother is dying and he wants to get there before she does die. When he spends the night at a Buddhist monastery along the way, he hears a scream in the middle of the night -- and when he returns to Heian Kyo, he learns that a woman was murdered by her brother-in-law that night.
To make things even worse, his sister Akiko's new husband is accused of stealing imperial treasures. Looking for the stolen objects leads him back to the murdered woman, and a disturbing secret about his own family: His other sister, Yoshiko, is in love with the man who seems to have murdered his sister-in-law. Perhaps most horrifyingly, he will learn the grisly secret behind the monastery's graphic depiction of torture, the "hell screen."
The basics of your average murder mystery are here: A lot of clues, coverups, clever tricks, red herrings, a persistent detective and a disgruntled cop. The setting is unusual in itself, since most mysteries don't dip into Heian-era Japan, which is shown in rich detail in "Hell Screen." Parker has clearly done her research. She doesn't overwhelm you with too many details of her research, just letting it flow.
Parker also shows her ability to manage subplots: Akitada is distracted by his mother's rage toward him, and a startling secret about his parentage.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
At a temple outside Heian Kyo, the wife of a wealthy antique dealer is found, brutally murdered, in the room of her brother-in-law, who is immediately arrested for murder. He claims he did not do it, but he has no remembrance of the evening at all.

Akitada is just returning to Heian Kyo from several years as a provincial governor, and present the temple on the night of the murder. He hears a woman scream that evening, but it is not until several days later that he learns of the crime. Despite Inspector Kobe's reluctance, Akitada turns his deductive skills to the case, while also trying to remove his own brother-in-law out of a bit of a potentially ruining situation.

Meanwhile, Akitada's servant, the womanizing Tora, decides to prove his deductive prowess, and find "the slasher" that is mutilating women in the Pleasure Quarters. He has seen the slasher's work and is determined to stop him.

As with the first Akitada novel, there is a lot going on. But, Ms. Parker pulls it off with style and intelligence. The descriptions of eleventh-century Japan are detailed, and yet casual so that the reader doesn't feel that history is being pushed down the throat. Akitada and his friends and family are convincingly real and the plot is credible.

On the whole, this five star mystery is a worthy successor to (also five star) Rashomon Gate and Ms. Parker keeps rising in my esteem as a gifted author.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Akitada is a good character to focus on. He's honorable, intelligent, conscious of his pride and working on humbling himself, and he's courageous and loyal.

The descriptions in this book were very well-done. I felt like I'd been transported to feudal Japan. I saw the beautiful autumn leaves, the colorful silks and embroidery, the realistic art, traditional homes, etc. Sometimes the author went a little overboard with the descriptions and slowed the story, but overall I appreciated the clarity and detail provided.

Akitada is a man of leisure, and as he is our lead character, we move at a leisurely pace. I wouldn't call it suspenseful, but it was intriguing.

The characters are very well-developed and colorful. I wanted to slap Akitada's older sister and hug the younger. His wife's character compliments his perfectly. Their son is a delight.

I wasn't expecting it to become as gruesome as it did. It didn't bother me, I was just surprised because the author didn't seem like the sort to write horror. However, he did it very well; I felt Akitada's anxiety and pain and kept holding my breath without realizing it.

It's a great story if you don't mind the slow pace. This is an author who knows how to paint a picture in your imagination. In fact, there were times I felt like I was watching a movie rather than reading.

I would recommend this book to those with strong stomachs and patience.
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