Minotaur/A Thomas Dunne Book/St. Martin’s Press, 1913
I have, over the years, read three mystery series set in Japan (from the 11th to the 17th centuries), by Dale Furutani, I.J. Parker, and Laura Joh Rowland. All three are excellent. Susan Spann’s debut book in a series featuring Matsui (an alias)Hiro (a shinobi, or what Hollywood calls a ninja) and Father Mateo, a Portuguese Catholic priest, in Kyoto during the late 16th century, makes it look like we have a fourth winning series.
Hiro and Father Mateo are summoned to a tea house where a retired army general, Akechi Hideoyoshi, has been rather hideously slain. Suspicion has fallen on Sayuri, an entertainer in the tea house, known to Father Mateo and a convert to Catholicism, whom Hideoyoshi had been visiting the night before. Akechi Nobuhide, Hideyoshi’s son, and in charge of a local police outpost, claims the right, as a Samurai, to avenge his father’s death by killing Sayuri—And Father Mateo, if he insists on meddling. Nobuhide is talked into a two day delay, for Mateo and Hiro to find the true murderer, if there is one other than Sayuri,
Hiro has been sent by his family, for reasons not made clear as yet, to be Mateo’s bodyguard (Hiro says, as he is getting his swords before they leave Mateo’s house/church, “Mine [his swords] are paid to protect you.”). But he is also highly intelligent, inquisitive, and skilled in fighting, and tracking, among other talents. Mateo is devout, kind, and determined that justice be done. For me, the presence of a Portuguese Catholic priest was an interesting, and useful, feature of the book. The Portuguese, as the only Europeans allowed into Japan, provide us with an outsider’s perspective which complements Hiro’s insider knowledge.
The investigation is well handled and sufficiently complex to hold our attention and interest, and to provide sufficient tension to keep us well in the dark. Along the way, we learn a fair amount about the customs of a Japanese Samurai family, about Japanese inheritance laws, and about the place and role of tea houses and tea house entertainers in society. Spann has created a number of interesting and complex characters—both Hiro and Mateo, but also some of the subordinate characters, including Hideoyoshi’s brother, wife, and daughter (I have to say, I found Nobuhide fairly one-note through most of the book, but, then, some people really are pretty much one-note), and the owner of the tea house, Mayuri. I look forward to reading the subsequent books in the series.