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.
Debut author Susan Spann delivers a riveting mystery filled with rich period detail and a fine sense of Japanese culture. Claws of the Cat boasts a detective like no other and a world never seen before in crime fiction.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. She has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Her hobbies include Asian cooking, fencing, knife and shuriken throwing, traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and horseback riding. She keeps a marine aquarium where she raises seahorses and rare corals. She lives in northern California with her family.
Read an Excerpt
Claws of the Cat
A Shinobi Mystery
By Susan Spann
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Susan Spann
All rights reserved.
Father Mateo strolled through the narrow yard, hands folded and face cast down in meditation. His shoulders bent against the predawn chill. The first two weeks of May had been warm in Kyoto, but this morning the switch to his summer kimono seemed just a bit premature.
At the other end of the garden a shadow snaked over the wall and into a cherry tree with no more sound than a spring wind rustling leaves.
The priest walked on, unaware.
He passed the koi pond without a glance. It was still too dark to watch the fish. At the back wall of the garden the Jesuit crossed himself and knelt before a statue of a man nailed to a cross. The priest's knees sank into the dampened ground as he bowed his head in earnest prayer.
The shadow moved farther up the tree. Rain-slicked leaves and slippery bark made climbing treacherous, but the shinobi did not falter. His hands and feet found purchase where none existed for other men.
A branch grew over the path between the koi pond and the house. The assassin stretched his body along the limb. He moved out over the path without dislodging a single leaf.
And there he waited.
Minutes passed. The eastern sky purpled with dawn's approach. A fish jumped in the pond, and a delicate splash resonated through the yard.
The priest's lips moved without a sound.
The shinobi's black eyes glittered in the depths of his hood.
As the sky turned pale Father Mateo concluded his morning prayers. He stood up and brushed stray leaves from his brown kimono, then frowned at the damp patches over his knees. When the moisture did not rub away he shrugged to himself, nodded to the statue, and turned back toward the wooden house that served as his home and church.
The shinobi's breathing slowed until even his dark blue tunic ceased to move.
Father Mateo passed the pond without stopping. As he stepped beneath the tree, the assassin dropped to the path with no more sound than a breaking twig and laid a slender hand on the Jesuit's shoulder.
Father Mateo spun with a startled cry. The shinobi's hands flew up in defense as the priest's face tensed and then relaxed in recognition.
"Hiro!" Father Mateo exclaimed. "How many times must I tell you not to do that?"
Dark eyes sparkled within the shinobi's cowl. "I will stop on the day that I fail to surprise you."
The Jesuit frowned. "Have you been out all night again?"
Hiro pulled down the cloth that covered his mouth and pushed his hood back onto his shoulders. "I don't answer that sort of question, remember?"
He reached into the pouch that hung at his side. "I brought you something."
"Other than heart failure?" Father Mateo asked.
Hiro raised an eyebrow in amusement and pulled out a small, dark object. It squirmed.
"An presenta," he said in Portuguese.
"Um presente," Father Mateo corrected. Hiro's Portuguese was startlingly good, considering that the shinobi had studied the language for barely eighteen months. The priest's Japanese had far more flaws, despite two years of study before his arrival and eighteen months of living in Kyoto.
"Presente," Hiro repeated.
The present struggled and mewed.
Father Mateo stepped back. "That's a cat!"
"A small one," Hiro agreed. He switched to Japanese. "Since you talk to the fish, I thought you would like it."
The priest switched languages, following Hiro's lead. "Where did you find a cat?"
"Abandoned by the canal. It's not a lucky color, but you claim you don't believe in luck."
"God controls my fortune," Father Mateo confirmed, "but lucky or no, I can't keep a kitten. Cats make me sneeze."
Hiro considered the squirming ball of fur. "What should I do? I don't want it to die."
"Have you become a Buddhist overnight?" Father Mateo grinned at his own joke.
"You know better than that." Hiro frowned at the kitten. "It needs a home."
"I can't touch it, but it can stay. It's your cat now, if you want it."
The kitten spun in Hiro's grip and clawed at his arm. He clutched it to his chest to stop its struggling.
The kitten gave a muffled mew.
"You're squeezing it," Father Mateo said.
"It's stabbing me," Hiro retorted. "I'd say we're even."
The kitten began to purr. It retracted its claws and relaxed in Hiro's hands. He looked down at the tiny bundle of marbled black and orange fur. A white patch gleamed at the kitten's throat, and the tiny cat squinted at him through greenish yellow eyes.
Loud banging echoed through the air. It came from the front of the house.
"Open up!" a male voice yelled. "I need the foreign priest!"
"Who did you insult this time?" Hiro arched an eyebrow at the priest.
Father Mateo started for the house. "No one I remember, not intentionally anyway."
Only a handful of foreigners had the shogun's permission to live and work in the Japanese capital. Many samurai found even that limited presence offensive.
"At least they're not Shogun Ashikaga's men, or the emperor's." Hiro followed the priest to the wooden veranda that circled the perimeter of the house.
The men slipped out of their sandals and stepped up onto the smooth, unpainted wood.
"How do you know that?" Father Mateo asked.
Hiro followed the priest inside. "The emperor and the shogun do not knock."
The room that served as Father Mateo's bedroom and study had a built-in writing alcove instead of a desk and no Western furniture at all. Only the crucifix mounted in the tokonoma, the decorative alcove that normally showcased pieces of Japanese art, hinted at the room's foreign occupant. Although the Jesuit mission had purchased the house from a Japanese family two years before, in the spring of 1563, Father Mateo lived as a Japanese and had permitted little change.
Father Mateo crossed the floor, slid open the door, and stepped into the central room beyond. The open room at the center of the house had a sunken hearth and tatami mats on the floor, and it served every purpose from parlor to family room and even church. Father Mateo turned right, toward the small entry chamber at the front of the house, and ran a hand through his dark brown hair.
He turned to look for Hiro.
The shinobi had disappeared into his own room, which shared a wall with the priest's. Hiro couldn't let anyone see him in assassin's clothing. Moreover, a messenger would think it strange to find the household alert and about so early.
Father Mateo started to run his hand through his hair again, but caught himself and stopped. He faced the swinging door at the front of the house and called, "Who's there?"
His Portuguese accent often made people pause, but this time a male voice answered at once. "Mateo Ávila de Santos? You are wanted at the Sakura Teahouse."
Father Mateo opened the door. "So early?"
The visitor wore a simple kimono belted at the waist with a wide obi. A dagger hung at his hip but he carried no sword. His close-cropped hair was thinning on top, a situation made even more obvious by the fact that his head barely reached the Jesuit's chest.
The messenger startled at the sight of the foreign priest but recovered more quickly than most. "There has been a murder. A man is dead."
"Was the victim one of my students?" Father Mateo avoided the term "converts" in the company of strangers.
"No. The murderer asked for you."
The messenger nodded. "Sayuri, an entertainer."
Father Mateo stepped backward and shook his head. "That's impossible. Sayuri would never kill anyone."
"She did, and a samurai at that. You'd better come quickly if you want to see her."
"Is she going to commit suicide?" Father Mateo asked.
"You'd better come quickly," the messenger repeated. "She hasn't got much time."
Hiro emerged from his room wearing a smoke-colored silk kimono and a pair of swords. The short wakizashi hung down from his obi, while the longer katana stuck upward through the sash with its black-lacquered bamboo scabbard jutting several feet behind his back. Somehow, the shinobi had also found time to retie his long hair in a samurai's oiled topknot. Not a strand was out of place.
The messenger's eyes went wide at the sight of a samurai. He dropped to the ground and laid his forehead in the dirt.
"Get up," Hiro said as he reached the doorway. "Where is the Sakura Teahouse?"
The messenger stood and bowed from the waist. "Honorable sir, it lies on this side of the Kamo River, on Shijo Road, east of Pontocho. It's the third house east of the bridge. You will know it by the stone dogs in the yard."
Hiro scowled. "I will bring the priest. You may go."
The messenger bowed twice more and hurried away.
"We could have gone with him," Father Mateo protested as Hiro shut the swinging door.
"Samurai do not follow commoners." Hiro looked the priest up and down. "More importantly, that's your old kimono and you need to put on your swords."
"You know I don't like to wear them, and we need to hurry."
"Why did I train you to use them if you won't wear them?" Hiro shook his head at the priest's stubbornness. "Nevermind. As you say, we should hurry. Change and get your swords."
"Why are the swords so important?"
"Two years in Japan, and you still have to ask?"
The priest crossed his arms over his chest.
Hiro pointed at the swinging door. "You saw the way he reacted when I appeared. Only samurai have the right to wear two swords and to order men to obey. The shogun's edict granted you the rank of a samurai, and today you must use it. If this woman is in trouble, you will need your swords to save her."
"We have yours," the priest pointed out.
"Mine are paid to protect you," Hiro said. "My clan and I owe nothing to a girl we do not know."
And have every reason to let her die if doing so saves your life, he thought.
But he didn't say that part aloud.CHAPTER 2
Hiro and Father Mateo left the house and walked west along the narrow earthen road that led to the Kamo River. The priest stood three inches taller than his Japanese protector, but the status he gained by his six-foot height was destroyed by his katana. The longsword wagged behind him like the tail of an overexcited dog.
Hiro shook his head and fought a smile. "That would stop if you practiced wearing the swords, you know."
"Yes. Just like the last ten times you told me." Father Mateo smiled to remove the comment's sting.
After half a mile they passed the white torii gate at the public entrance to Okazaki Shrine, which marked and guarded Kyoto's eastern border. A white-robed Shinto priestess sold amulets by the gate. She nodded respectfully to Father Mateo. Shinto acknowledged a multitude of divinities. The priestess considered the Christian god no threat.
Father Mateo returned the silent greeting. He saw the woman often on the road, and, though he disagreed with her theology, he bore her no ill will.
At the river Hiro and Father Mateo turned south along the unpaved road that followed the eastern bank. Cherry trees lined the way. A month before, their blossoms fell like snow, but Hiro preferred May's leaves to April's flowers. They made better camouflage.
A bridge spanned the river at Sanjo Road. Had they crossed, the street would have led them to Pontocho, a twisting alley connecting Sanjo Road with Shijo Road to the south. Teahouses and brothels crowded the narrow thoroughfare, barely leaving space for three people to walk abreast.
Hiro glanced at the bridge and the city beyond. He hated Pontocho. Tight spaces didn't bother him, but large concentrations of dishonest women did.
East of the river, Sanjo Road was residential. Well-groomed gardens and trees surrounded the dwellings. As the messenger promised, stone dogs stood guard at the third house on the left, a two-story structure with a raised foundation and a steeply peaked roof. Long eaves overhung the wide veranda that circled the house, and a gravel path led to gates at both sides of the building. Wooden fences shielded the yards beyond from public view.
Crowded Pontocho had no room for private gardens. Then again, the average teahouse patron wasn't paying to see a landscape.
Father Mateo walked to the door and knocked with a familiar confidence that made Hiro wonder how much time his pious friend spent in teahouses.
The door swung open to reveal a woman in a formal kimono embroidered with dark purple blossoms. Her hair and makeup looked flawless despite the early hour, and though her thinning face suggested age, no lines or wrinkles marred her powdered features.
She inclined her head to the priest.
Father Mateo bowed. "Good morning, Madame Mayuri. Sayuri sent for me?"
The similarity in the names suggested mother and daughter or master and apprentice. Hiro guessed the latter. He could hardly imagine a less maternal figure than the tall woman standing in the doorway.
Mayuri's gaze shifted to Hiro as if drawn by his thoughts.
He bowed just enough to show manners but not quite enough for respect. "I am Matsui Hiro, Father Mateo's translator and scribe."
The assumed surname fell naturally from his lips. He had used it so long that it almost felt like his own.
"I have not seen you here before," Mayuri said.
It was neither a question nor an accusation, and also both.
"His previous visits concerned only his religion," Hiro replied, "but this time he may encounter words he does not understand."
Mayuri nodded but did not bow. Hiro decided to overlook the slight. Teahouse women stood outside the social structure, and though they usually indulged male guests to the point of obsequiousness, this was not a normal morning and, strictly speaking, Hiro was not a guest.
"Mayuri owns the Sakura Teahouse," Father Mateo said.
Hiro didn't need the explanation. Successful entertainers often bought or inherited houses when they retired, and although she was now too old to sing and dance for men's amusement, Mayuri would have won hearts and emptied pockets in younger days.
She stepped back from the door. "Come in."
The cedar floor of the entry gleamed like honey beneath her sock-clad feet. Hiro pitied the servant tasked with keeping it clean. He stepped out of his geta and onto the raised floor, but paused to let Father Mateo enter first. Hiro always reinforced the impression that Father Mateo deserved great deference and respect, while Hiro himself was merely a low-ranked scribe.
A shinobi's first and greatest defense was misdirection.
Six tatami covered the entry floor. Most entries measured no more than four mats, and the extra space conveyed a sense of luxury and light. A decorative screen by the eastern wall showed merchants and samurai cavorting with courtly ladies.
Hiro inhaled the scent of expensive cedar mixed with something faint and sweet that reminded him of distant flowers in bloom.
Ahead and to the right, an open doorway led to the central foyer, but before Mayuri could lead them through Father Mateo asked, "Has there really been a murder?"
Mayuri raised her painted eyebrows at his directness.
Hiro pretended not to notice. The Jesuit tried to behave like a Japanese, but his Western nature showed through under stress. At least he hadn't run his hand through his hair yet.
Mayuri kept silent long enough to indicate her disapproval. "A samurai is dead."
"Surely Sayuri didn't kill him," Father Mateo said.
Mayuri's lack of reply said more than enough.
"I don't believe it," the priest insisted. "May I see her?"
Mayuri inclined her head in consent. "Follow me."
She led them into the square, twelve-mat foyer. Sliding doors on the eastern and western walls led to private rooms, three on either side, where the teahouse women entertained their guests. Unlike prostitutes, who needed only space for a futon, true entertainers required room to sing and dance as well as a hearth for serving meals and tea.
Another door, in the northern wall, stood open to the informal room beyond, where the women gathered for meals and conversation or to wait for guests to arrive. Hiro averted his eyes. Polite people did not stare into private spaces and he had already seen enough to know the room held no imminent threat.
Mayuri knelt on the floor before the second sliding door on the western side.
As she arranged her kimono around her knees Father Mateo whispered, "Why is she kneeling?"
"No proper entertainer opens an interior door while standing," Hiro murmured. "Didn't Sayuri do the same?"
"I told her Christians kneel only to God."
Before Hiro could reply Mayuri looked up. "Sayuri will explain what you see, but be warned. You may find the scene ... disturbing."
Excerpted from Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann. Copyright © 2013 Susan Spann. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This new mystery series is set in 16th century Japan and is full of interesting new words and the culture of the times. The heroes are an interesting pair. Father Mateo, a Jesuit Priest, and Hero, a master shinobi ( what we think of as a ninja), who is sworn to protect the Father. When a samurai is murdered in a local Kyota teahouse, the lovely young "entertainer" calls upon the Father to prove her innocence. The murdered man's son is furious and wants immediate revenge --the death of the entertainer who was the only one in the room with the murdered man on the night of his death. He allows Father Mateo two days to prove her innocent and reveal another murderer. If finds no proof, then he threatens to kill both the Father and the girl. This was a very interesting book. New words were defined in the glossary at the end of the book. The culture of the times makes the detecting much different than what we think of for a modern mystery, with social customs making direct questioning almost impossible. The coupling of a Portuguese Christian Priest with a Japanese shinobi makes for interesting interactions. Knowing very little about those times, I felt myself truly drawn into this well researched and intriguing mystery. Definitely plan to read the next book in this series---BLADE OF THE SAMURI.
A good mystery if you want to get some sense of ninja culture in 16th century Kyoto. On the other hand, I found the story line moved a little slowly and I felt the characters were a bit cartoonish, lacking much subtlety or depth. Also, for those not familiar with Japanese names, I found two brothers essential to the plot to have names too similar and I always had to stop and think about which brother is this.
When one of Father Mateo’s congregation, the lovely, young entertainer in a geisha house, is accused of the murder of one of the samurai patrons, Matsui Hiro, Father Mateo’s Japanese translator/bodyguard (and undercover shinobi or ninja) lends his skills to find the real killer. The murdered man’s son gives the pair 3 days to discover the murderer or face death as part of the son’s traditional revenge. This is a great mystery set in 16th century Japan, and you can almost feel, hear and smell the setting and live the story right along with the wonderful lead character, Hiro and Father Mateo. The story is sprinkled with memorable supporting characters as well: Ana, the curmudgeonly housekeeper, and Luis, the Portuguese merchant and guest in Father Mateo’s home. The story is filled with authentic sounding and feeling details, and the author certainly has the chops to assure you of their genuine nature. This was a fabulous reading experience, and I do mean experience. I feel like I just returned from a trip to medieval Japan I was so immersed in the story.
A quick, suspenseful read with lots of interesting details into the lives and history of Japanese culture. I'm so pleased this will be a series as I am really intrigued with Hiro, and want to learn about his past and why he has the lowly (for a Shinobi) job of guarding a simple priest. I do regret reading on Nook, as I was Googling dialect and customs - only to discover the author DID include a reference guide at back of book. When the next book comes out I will get the paper-bound so I can easily flip back and forth.
A good historical fiction/mystery novel. Hiro is a ninja commanded to protect a Portuguese Catholic Priest named Father Mateo in 16th century Japan. Father Mateo gets involved in a murder investigation with one of his followers. Hiro and must find the true killer or not only will Father Mateo’s follower be killed, but so will the Father. The family of the murdered has the right to vengeance against the killer. “Claws of the Cat” is Susan Spann’s debut historical fiction/mystery novel. Overall I enjoyed this novel. The historical facts were well researched and informative without sounding contrived. I liked the different characters and their interactions. It was interesting to be immersed in a culture so very different from my own. The mystery wasn’t one that was blatantly obvious or completely impossible to deduce, which was nice. My only complaint was that the book was fairly slow to moderately paced. There wasn’t a moment where I wanted to read just a little bit more, just to see what would happen next. Having said that, I found the novel entertaining and overall a good read. For those who like a good, historically accurate mystery novel check out “Claws of the Cat.” It isn’t an intensely paced book, but it definitely keeps you entertained. I received this book through Goodreads First Reads. This in no way influenced my review. I was not required to, nor compensated for, writing a review.
Absorbed in this page-turner, I had no idea how much I was learning about 16th century Japan until I finished the book. I admire the author's skill in achieving this result so elegantly. The reader really does need every bit of this information for maximum enjoyment, and at no time did it ever feel like a tedious slog through unnecessary data, or present me with anything I felt tempted to skip – quite the contrary, I would have been happy to pick up a sequel right away and learn more about this fascinating time and place. Hiro and Father Mateo are ideal foils for each other, very different, but each with strengths that complement those of the other. The secondary characters are also distinctive and interesting. The author has a profound knowledge of her novel's setting, and she writes with a level of assurance remarkable in a debut novel. I look forward to the next book in this series.
Reading Claws of the Cat is an exciting experience for any avid mystery book advocate. There is no need to be a scholar of Japanese history to thoroughly enjoy this captivating novel, set in Shogun times of the 16th century. Susan Spann has written with such clarity that the story flows seamlessly. The characters are developed carefully and each has his important place in the story. The cleverness of the story line keeps the reader turning pages quickly to learn more about the detective work and to learn how the story unfolds. Susan Spann has carved out a unique territory with a suspense novel that blends an intriguing mystery and talented writing with enchanting characters in a mystical setting. Readers will look forward to following these compelling characters into an ongoing series of adventures!
I love books that take me to a time and place I know little about and then make that setting utterly real to me. When the author also spins a mystery that won’t let go of me, then I’ve found a great read: Susan Spann’s Claws of the Cat. The politics of the Shogunate, family dynamics, religious beliefs, the role of women in Japan (and a renegade or two just to keep things especially intriguing), Zen meditation, the differing world views of East and West—this entertaining book will fool you with the range of ideas it covers. Spann’s depth of knowledge about Japanese history and culture shines through with great authority and I enjoyed the insights she gave me. Don’t you love getting a painless education while indulging in the best escape of all—a good book? Pick up this book for a read you won’t be able to put down.
***Edited for space version of my original review, first published on LibraryThing, 7/1/13*** (Disclaimer: Received this Uncorrected Digital Galley free through NetGalley) Move over Sherlock Holmes, a ninja detective is in town! I thoroughly enjoyed this book. From the great dialogue to the wonderful depictions of scenes of historical Japan, especially in Kyoto. A murder takes place at a teahouse. The victim is a samurai and the main suspect is the female entertainer who spent the night with him in the same room. The amazing thing with this book was the way the author was able to take a mystery, the murder of the samurai, and over the course of the entire book, mislead and pull me along without any problem. From nearly the beginning, you know the identity of the victim and how he was killed. After that, the author excels at bringing forth more and more suspects, motives, and 'coverups'. During my reading of this book, I wondered how a Jesuit priest and a ninja posing as a samurai would do together as an investigative team. The answer was they would do just fine. The priest, Father Mateo, and the ninja, Hiro, had great back and forth interaction and what seemed like the beginning of a real friendship. I will say that for the most part Hiro takes the lead and is the real protagonist in the book, but there are many parts where Father Mateo works wonderfully as a foil, the clueless foreigner (he's Portugese) who stumbles through conversation with native Japanese and is able to draw out answers Hiro would be unable to due to samurai propriety. Hanging over the heads of the team is a death sentence pronounced by the dead samurai's son, Nobuhide, who is a police commander. He says the female entertainer is the murderer and unless they can prove otherwise, she will die in two days, and so will Father Mateo if he fails to prove otherwise. Hiro is the protector of Father Mateo, assigned by his clan (reason for this I don't think is fully disclosed), and should the priest die, he will have to suicide. Though obviously the main character is a ninja (technically called shinobi in Japanese), there are not any crazy fight scenes or anything of the sort. With the exception of some infiltrations into locations, the ninja part is not overdone. Complicating the investigation are the secrets and motives of a host of involved parties, from the dead samurai's family to the teahouse owner, even possibly a spy for a rebel lord fighting the shogun. The author weaves a web of relations and disputes between the characters that kept me entranced for the entire book. The end took me by surprise. With so many suspects and very plausible motives for them to have committed the murder, I was taking mental bets on who the perpetrator was. I lost my bet. The amount of research the author must have put into this book has to have been immense. The scenes I was able to envision after reading were vivid and detailed. The author did a phenomenal job on the history and culture of 16th century Japan. Also, the use of Japanese in the book isn't overwhelming. Translations are worked in seamlessly, so a reader won't become lost. The Shinobi Mysteries will hopefully reach the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes novels, I think it'd be fitting. I'd recommend this book as a fine addition to any mystery lover's bookshelves. (Note: LibraryThing allows 1/2 stars, so my original rating was 4 1/2, but I have no qualms about giving 5 stars on B