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Onyx reviews: The Masuda Affair by I.
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
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
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
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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