Island of Exiles, I.J. Parker
This is the fourth in a series of mysteries set in 11th-century Japan, featuring Sugawara Akitada, an official in the imperial Ministry of Justice. In the third book, Black Arrow, he accepted an assignment as provisional governor of the remote northern Echigo Province (today's Niigata Prefecture). As this book opens, he and his family, which now includes his baby son Yori, are still in Echigo. They have been waiting six months for his recall to the capital, and for his salary, now badly in arrears. Facing the onset of another long winter, with their resources exhausted, their situation is becoming desperate.
When envoys from the capital arrive one day, it is not with good news. Men of high rank, they carry documents from the Emperor himself, ordering an investigation into the murder of a member of the imperial family. Prince Okisada, the eldest brother of the current Emperor, had been passed over in the line of succession. Okisada later plotted to gain the throne for himself, which led to his permanent exile on Sado Island, a penal colony off the coast of Echigo. While visiting a friend's home, the Prince was suddenly taken ill and died. Poison was immediately suspected, and the son of the island's governor, a young man named Toshito who was present, was arrested and charged. Though the case against Toshito seems clear, there are larger issues at stake. There are rumors that Okisada may have been plotting another attempt to take the throne, perhaps this time by an alliance with the Ezo people of the north (who played a part in Black Arrow).
Akitada has no choice but to accept the assignment, coming as it does from the highest authority. But then the envoys add a twist: they suggest that he go undercover, alone and posing as a convict. Though he travels with secret papers identifying himself, from the moment of his arrival he is subject to brutal discipline and even abuse. Because the prevailing Buddhist ethos forbids the taking of life, executions are rare. The most severe punishment, for crimes like murder and treason, is exile. Exiles like the Prince, with financial resources, find life on Sado pleasant, if a bit restricted. For a convict like "Taketsuna," the newest arrival, life is likely to be brutish and short, hard labor on short rations, particularly for those assigned to the island's silver mines.
"Taketsuna" quickly finds allies. The governor, advised of his arrival and anxious to clear his son, appoints him a clerk, sparing him from manual labor. He is assigned to assist a provincial tax inspector on his rounds, which will give him the chance to meet the Prince's inner circle and to ask questions. But his investigations draw the attention of Kumo, a rich landowner and the province's high constable. Returning to the capital of Mano one night, he is set upon by armed men who beat him senseless. When Akitada awakes, he is imprisoned deep in one of Kumo's mines, with his investigation stalled and many questions unanswered. What is the connection between Kumo and the Prince? Is Toshito being framed for the murder, perhaps because of conflicts between his father and Kumo? Most importantly, how can he escape the brutal slavery of the mine? His disappearance alarms his family back in Echigo, and his faithful retainer Tora travels to Sado to find him, arriving just in time to help him escape and finally resolve the case.
As I have said before, I don't know much about 11th-century Japan. Each story in the series has introduced me to a new place, a new level of society. Even so, this story's setting is unique. And in this story, Akitada is completely out of his element. While he does have allies, he is on his own for much of the story, without the protection of his position or his household. He endures the humiliating and dangerous conditions of life as a supposed criminal. He risks his life to pursue the investigation, driven by his sense of duty, and also by stubbornness and curiosity. I'm looking forward to seeing where they take him next.