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Onyx reviews: The Masuda Affair by I. J. Parker

Novels set in different cultures and/or eras provide a window into these foreign times and places. Readers become armchair travelers, reaping the benefits of the author's extensive research into the location and customs. However, the best of these novels transcend these differences and bring to light the commonalities among people, regardless of where or when they live. The eleventh century Japan depicted in I.J. Parker's novels, despite its unfamiliar geography and politics, difficult names and unusual mysticism, isn't all that different from 21st century America. The same fundamental motivations drive people

As The Masuda Affair opens, Sugawara Akitada's house is crumbling. The roof leaks, floorboards are rotting. Even the weeds overrunning his garden are dying. It's a perfect metaphor for Akitada's life. Ever since his son, Yori, died during a small pox epidemic, Akitada, a senior secretary in the Ministry of Justice, has thrown himself into his work, neglecting his house, his staff and his wife, who is mourning the loss in her own way.

While returning from a business trip in Hikone, Akitada approaches the town of Otsu, where the residents are celebrating a festival welcoming home the spirits of the dead. On the outskirts, he stumbles upon a waif who reminds him of Yori. The boy seems to be a deaf mute and shows signs of abuse and neglect. Akitada takes him into Otsu to look for his parents, secretly hoping not to find them so he can take the boy home with him, a surrogate to ease the pain of his loss. While digging around, he encounters a former client once accused of murder who was exonerated by Akitada's investigation—a story told in one of the previous novels in the series.

The Mimuras, a fisherman and his wife, claim to be the boy's parents. They come off as money grubbers, but no one can refute their claim. Akitada gives the couple some money to help pay for the boy's upkeep, intending to leave for home the next day.

Akitada has a lengthy history of getting involved in other people's business, though. Determined to find out who the boy really is, and with no other clues to go on, he follows a stray cat that the boy seemed to recognize. The trail leads to an abandoned house and, ultimately, to another mystery involving the powerful and supposedly cursed Masuda family and a renowned courtesan named Peony who gave up her career to become the mistress of a wealthy man. Peony drowned in the lake behind the empty house. The prevailing theory is that she committed suicide.

Akitada can't stay in Otsu forever—his report on his trip to Hikone is long overdue—so he returns to the capital (Kyoto, in those days). Things are in flux on the home front. When he tries to tell his wife, Tamako, about the boy, she misunderstands, believing the child to be Akitada's son by another woman. His normally faithful servant, Tora, has been uncharacteristically absent from the household. Unbeknownst to Akitada and Tamako, Tora married a dancer from the amusement quarter and is about to become a father, effectively making him a servant to two masters: Akitada, to whom he has pledged lifelong service, and his wife. When his wife goes missing while entertaining a wealthy lord, Tora goes crazy with worry.

Unable to shake the boy's plight, Akitada returns to Otsu with most of his gold, intending to buy the boy from the Mimuras. However, when he sees the way the boy has been mistreated and how the money he left for the boy's care has been abused, he flies into a rage and seizes him. His interest in the boy is misinterpreted by local officials, though, which leads to his arrest, threatening his reputation and career.

The seemingly unrelated cases of the abused boy, the dead courtesan, the malingering fisherman and his wife, and Tora's missing wife begin to dovetail in the second half of the book. The stakes are raised when bodies start to pile up as someone desperately tries to cover up past crimes. An earthquake shakes loose part of the truth Akitada has been seeking. One of the things he discovers is that before he can unravel the mystery of the Masuda family he must first put his own household in order.

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