Book Review – Claws of the Cat
By Susan Spann
About six months back, I joined the Japan Writers Conference, an annual event that attracts a lot of academics, intellectuals, and amazingly creative people. They also let anyone join, and it’s free, so that explains why they let me in. There, I had the pleasure to meet Susan Spann. She’s a powerhouse of energy, and she gave a rousing presentation (2 actually) on the process of writing a mystery.
Flash forward. I bought Susan’s first novel, Claws of the Cat, on Amazon.com, had it shipped to my home in Japan, which took two months. Come on, Amazon! 😜I wanted a physical copy. I’m that way lately. But I then let this fine novel wallow on the shelf while real life got in the way. Until last week.
I’m a Japanophile. Simultaneously, I’m a weary expat. I am inclined to enjoy this book right from the start, but my bullshit detector is industrial grade. The first mega-novel I ever read was Shogun. 600 pages that I read under my covers so my parents didn’t know I was up past bedtime. Thirty some odd years later and I still might enjoy it, but I also have Twenty years of living in Japan under my belt. I’m somewhat in the know now about Japan. If an author doesn’t know his/her stuff then I just can’t read it. Ms. Spann knows her stuff (Susan, can I call you Susan? Hell, we got drunk together listening to poetry, I think that qualifies). Point is, the historical references and setting are well researched.
The mystery, too, is very satisfying. And it ties into her method, which is to plot out in advance, and ensure that each suspect’s secret (they ALL have secrets) makes sense, is relevant to the plot, and adds to the mystery.
The hero, incidentally named Hiro (not so incidental?), is a shinobi, what most people would think of as a ninja. This was both logical and fun. Who could figure out how a murder was committed better than an assassin? His job is to protect a Jesuit Priest called Mateo. They get pulled into the murder case because Sayuri, a recent convert of Mateo’s is accused of murder. The priest offers his protection, believing she is innocent. The accuser agrees to wait to mete out justice for two days, but if she cannot prove her innocence then the accuser will kill the priest, too. Nice hook.
What would I have liked to see more of? Well, a little more depth in the setting wouldn’t have been amiss. The story is 270 pages, so certainly novel length. But adding thirty to fifty pages of color regarding Kyoto would have satisfied. As it was, the background was more sketch than tapestry. Also, I would have liked Father Mateo to be more integral to the solution, rather than a hook, which is what he felt like.
My only hair to split is that I would have expected more secrecy from Hiro. He is a ninja, after all. He seems to have shared that huge secret with Mateo, who has proven that he’s a bit of a social bull in a China shop. I didn’t buy that he would be so open about a secret that could very easily cost him his life. But hey, like I said, hair splitting.
I won’t get into spoilers, but suffice it to say that the mystery twists and turns. Clues are peppered. And the ending is satisfyingly feudal Japan, with geisha, samurai, ninja, katana, wakizashi, honor, and all.
Check this out for a slightly different view.