Claws of the Cat
A Shinobi Mystery, Book #1
By Susan Spann
Author Website: Susanspann.com
Brought to you by OBS reviewer Daniele
May 1564: When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro has no desire to get involved. But the beautiful entertainer accused of the crime enlists the help of Father Mateo, the Portuguese Jesuit Hiro is sworn to protect, leaving the master shinobi with just three days to find the killer in order to save the girl and the priest from execution.
The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto’s floating world, where they learn that everyone from the elusive teahouse owner to the dead man’s dishonored brother has a motive to keep the samurai’s death a mystery. A rare murder weapon favored by ninja assassins, a female samurai warrior, and a hidden affair leave Hiro with too many suspects and far too little time. Worse, the ninja’s investigation uncovers a host of secrets that threaten not only Father Mateo and the teahouse, but the very future of Japan. (Amazon)
In the early morning hours, Portuguese Jesuit priest Mateo is called to attend to one of his flock at a reputable tea house. Sayuri, one of the house’s entertainers (geisha), is being held as the only murder suspect when one of her regular patrons, a retired general from the Shogun’s army named Akechi Hideyoshi , is found brutally murdered in her quarters. Some of his wounds resemble claw marks made by a weapon favored by female assassins, and though she is anything but an assassin, this does nothing to remove her from suspicion. Father Mateo is certain that his newly converted sister in Christ is not the culprit and puts his own life on the line defending her reputation. Under Japanese law, Hideyoshi’s son Nobuhide has the right to avenge his father’s death by striking down the killer, and he gives Mateo three days time to clear Sayuri’s name or they both will lose their heads. Hiro, who poses as Mateo’s translator and scribe, is really a shinobi (ninja)sent to protect the priest, and in order to do his job he must help Mateo find the true murderer or lose his honor and life, too.
Claws of the Cat is an intriguing historical mystery that transports the reader to the fascinating world of Japan in the mid-sixteenth century. It provides an interesting look at Japanese culture – its honor code, etiquette, customs, laws, and class system. Ms. Spann does a wonderful job of explaining this historic world without it coming across as a history lesson, and her beautiful descriptions of the setting sparkle with authenticity and obvious fondness of the subject.
The mystery is solid, and Hideyoshi’s family and the members of the tea house provide plenty of suspects with plausible motives. A daughter raised as a samurai, his underachieving son, a rogue cousin, a down on his luck brother, the owner of the tea house, and a mysterious guest of the tea house all come together to keep the reader guessing. I confess that I did not realize the identity of the killer until quite late in the book, and, to me, that is a sign of a well thought out, well written plot. The imposed three day deadline added urgency to the story, and at times I was apprehensive that Hiro and Mateo might not solve the mystery in time.
Hiro is a mysterious character. We learn that he is sent to guard Mateo as a sort of punishment, but we do not really glean much else about his past. He is fascinating and mysterious, and I look forward to hopefully learning more about him in future books. His relationship with Mateo is unusual, but they seem to genuinely care for each other and make an odd, yet, endearing, investigating team. Father Mateo is equally interesting, and I love that he has embraced Japanese ways (except sake). His status as a foreigner allows him to get away with things that would not be acceptable otherwise in the Japanese culture, and Hiro uses this to his advantage as he tries to get information from the suspects.
I thoroughly enjoyed Claws of the Cat and will not hesitate to read further in the series. I recommend it to fans of historical mysteries and those who are interested in Japanese culture and history.