The Hell Screen

Written by I. J. Parker
Review by Steve Lewis

When you pick up this, the second case solved by nobleman Akitada Sugawara, be ready to be immersed in a world that’s as strange and alien and fascinating as a trip equally far into the future might be: eleventh century Japan.

While Akitada is staying overnight in a monastery on a return home, a young woman is murdered in a room nearby. And as fate would have it, the superintendent of the police who is in charge of the case is Kobe, with whom he helped solve a murder once before. Besides being involved with the murder, Akitada has a number of family problems to deal with as well, including the imminent death of his mother and his relationship with his two sisters. The mystery itself gets a little melodramatic toward the end, but given the circumstances, it’s easily forgiven.

Parker has a definite flair for describing both place and people, but to my ear, she doesn’t have quite the same finesse in structuring the words spoken by her characters. The dialogue (in English) often feels too informal to be appropriate for the time and the level of society of the speakers. A minor complaint, perhaps, about a book which, based on two real-life cases, is otherwise solid and vividly done. And in the process, Akitada Sugawara learns a little more about life and – although he’s very much happily married – about women.