There’s always a rumble of discontent when a writer who’s made their bones in another genre (or perhaps – gasp – literary fiction) tries their hand at speculative fiction. The gripes are always the same, and often justified – they don’t know the material so they’re retreading old ground, they don’t know the proper conventions for crafting a genre plot, and so on.
Yet, when speculative fiction authors attempt to play in other sandboxes, they often make the same mistakes – writing supernatural mysteries, for example, that fail at their first duty: being mysterious.
Which is the perfect segue into a discussion of Richard Parks’ Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter, a collection of supernatural mysteries set in feudal Japan that offer plenty of oni, ghosts, and kitsune, but not much in the way of mystery.
Yamada no Goji – technically Lord Yamada, as our hero is a down-at-the-heels minor noble – lives next door to a sake shop and spends most of his time drinking away his woman troubles, except when he’s hired to sober up and take care of a supernatural problem. The woman he loves is unattainable, his best friend is a drunken priest, and his name at court is mud; no wonder he drinks to excess and goes hunting demons.
And hunt demons he does, relying on a reputation for efficiency and discretion that yields a steady stream of jobs. These jobs take him across Japan and present him with a number of seemingly impossible challenges: retrieve the lost bride of a small boy’s ghost, deal with a savage ogre haunting the woods near a monastery, and so forth.
The problem, unfortunately, is that the short stories collected in the volume can never figure out if they want to be magical mysteries – Yamada’s noir-light narrative voice and positioning as a down-and-out private eye with rich woman troubles certainly push in this direction – or if they want to be straight-up magical adventure, as evidenced by the various bits of swordplay, monster hunting, and so on. As a result, they’re a little bit of neither and not a lot of both.
The mystery angle is particularly vexing, in that there’s never any doubt as to who the guilty parties are. Parks keeps the cast of his stories small, so the list of possible suspects is small, too, and usually it boils down to a range of one. And if there’s only one suspect, there’s not much mystery. As for the swordplay, it’s generally over very quickly. A single stroke dispatches even the most fearsome monsters, rendering action sequences blisteringly short. It’s not until “Sanji’s Demon”, one of the last stories in the collection, that Parks throws an interesting curveball at readers in terms of who the villain is. By then, it may be too late.
Garrett and Dresden fans who want to step a little bit outside their comfort zones will most likely enjoy the book. Its noir stylings and the easy banter between Yamada and his priest buddy Kenji make it an accessible, quick read, and the unusual setting for a paranormal detective story gives the book a fresh narrative veneer. Those looking for something more mysterious, however, or more involved demon hunting, may walk away feeling dissatisfied.