How much do you know about sixteenth century history outside the borders of Europe? If you're like me, surprisingly (and embarrassingly) little. As a remedy, I recommend a just-published historical mystery that opens up the exotic, fascinating world of sixteenth century Japan.
Susan Spann's debut mystery novel CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur/St. Martin's Press) whisks the reader away to the land of ninjas, teahouses, samurai and missionaries:
When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro Hattori has just three days to find the killer before the dead man's vengeful son kills both the beautiful geisha accused of the crime and Father Mateo, the Jesuit priest that Hiro has pledged his own life to protect. The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto's floating world, where they quickly learn that everyone from an elusive teahouse owner to the dead man's dishonored brother has a motive to keep the samurai's death a mystery.
Writing with the spare beauty of an oriental flower arrangement, Spann spins an enthralling tale of murder, jealousy, love and honor whose drama is heightened by the ominous pressure of the imposed time constraint. The well-constructed plot cleverly seeds clues and false leads throughout the narrative, keeping the reader engaged, actively analyzing evidence, and racing to solve the mystery in time to save selfless Father Mateo. The ending, although not entirely unanticipated, culminates in an emotionally powerful scene that opposes the Asian notion of honor with that of Western justice.
Beyond its well-wrought plot, CLAWS eclipses the average murder mystery in two other areas: the vibrancy of its historical setting and the depth its characterization. Spann, an attorney with a degree in Asian studies, recreates in vivid and precise detail locales and customs specific to medieval Japan. The reader finds herself stepping through gliding rice-paper doors in a typical Japanese house, strolling paths of raked gravel on the grounds of Buddhist temples, and shouldering crowds on the congested streets of the mercantile quarter. She listens to the song of geishas while drinking ritually prepared tea, quakes in a pit of white sand before the magistrate's desk, and mourns at the funeral of a samurai nobleman. Spann never clogs the narrative with long passages of description or explanation but weaves succinct and evocative sensory and cultural details directly into the unfolding action. The fact that Father Mateo (a Portuguese foreigner who has only been in Japan a matter of months) often needs help understanding Japanese traditions requires native Hiro, the viewpoint character, to notice and elucidate things that he normally would hardly find worthy of mention--all to the great benefit of the reader.
Spann reveals just enough of her characters' back history to explain the present action, but never more. The sense that each character has a complicated and intriguing story of his or her own permeates every scene. For example, the reader knows Hiro is a samurai masquerading as a ninja, but doesn't know how Hiro came by such training or why, and by whom, he has been assigned to protect the priest. Likewise, the reader knows nothing of Father Mateo's past in Portugal nor what motivated him to become a missionary in Japan. Even minor characters, such as Ginjiro, the sake-sodden monk, and Luis, the Portuguese merchant who lives at the rectory, promise to tell captivating tales, if given the chance. The reader is on a quest not only to solve the murder but to piece together the mosaic of these hidden lives and histories. Spann's unique characters inspire compassion in their flawed particularity--I even sympathized with the murderer, despite the evil deed! This satisfying novel is as much--if not more--about the relationship of the characters to each other and to their pasts as it is about discovering who committed the crime. Spann dispenses her revelations at times and in doses that leave the reader panting for more.
I urge readers who normally would not reach for a mystery (and I include myself among them!) to give CLAWS OF THE CAT a try. As one of Susan's critique partners, I can assure you she is thoroughly knowledgeable and immensely passionate about Japanese culture and history. And if you enjoy CLAWS, you're in for a long, delightful ride--Susan has many more stories to tell about the world and characters she introduces in this remarkable debut novel.
You can find out more about Susan Spann and CLAWS OF THE CAT at her website. Be sure to return here tomorrow for Susan's guest post about the powerful women of Japan's "floating world."