Saturday, September 3, 2016

Susan Spann, Blade of the Samurai

Susan Spann, Blade of the Samurai
Minotaur Books/A Thomas Dunne Book/St. Martin’s Press, 2014
ISBN 978-1-250-02705-4

Matsui Hiro is awakened by a sound—someone has surreptitiously entered the home (and church) of Father Mateo, a Portuguese Catholic priest.  And it’s Hiro’s job to see than no harm comes to him.  And he is good at his job.  But when he confronts the intruder, it turns out to be his friend Kazu, who works in the Shogun’s compound for the Shogun’s cousin.  And the cousin, Saburo, has been murdered.  Kazu, with good reason, believed he is likely to be accused of the murder.  Hiro accepts Kazu’s story, tentatively, and arranges for him to leave Kyoto.  But before much can be accomplished, an emissary of the Shogun arrives asking (really, ordering) Father Mateo and Hiro to the compound to investigate the murder.  (They have a reputation, already, based on the events in Claws of the Cat.)

The investigation is urgent, because Lord Oda, a feudal lord who might have designs on the shogunate (and for whom a murder in the compound will look like weakness or incompetence) is due to arrive in three days.  As so the investigation begins.  Saburo, a relatively high-ranking official, was killed about midnight in his office.  There’s a lot of blood—and a hairpin on top of it all.  Because of the timing of the murder—after almost all the compound’s workmen (a master carver and the stable-master are the primary exceptions) were gone.  No one entered after the gates were closed (and so we have a variation of the “country-house” murder—a limited number of possible killers in a confined, and isolated space).  And Kazu is, of course, at the head of the list.  No one saw him leave the night before, but now he is nowhere to be found.

Not that he’s the only suspect.  Saburo has a mistress who could have killed him because he would not leave his wife.  His wife might have killed him (or had him killed) because of his mistress.  Kazu could have done it.  Another official looking to move up is always a possibility.  Someone working secretly for Lord Oda might have done it, in order to weaken the compound’s security (and the guard roster has been altered for the time of Oda’s arrival).  And more.

Hiro and Mateo undertake the investigation unwillingly, but they recognize the necessity of it.  We learn a bit more about Hiro’s presence in Kyoto (but not much), and the role of the Portuguese in arming the potentially warring factions in the country.  Saburo’s young son, Ichiro, becomes an important part of Hiro’s investigation, and he is a vital part of the story.  We are also reminded that, in a time when all documents are hand-written, being able to recognize the script of an individual is an important skill.

The second book in the series (and I liked the first book a lot) makes me even more interested in seeing what comes next…although I don’t quite understand the title (which doesn’t mean that it must have a meaning…).

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