Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann
Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann (Minotaur Books, 2014), the second Shinobi Mystery, is attempting something inherently difficult. As a historical mystery, it’s always problematic to take the reader back in time to a different culture. The challenge is perhaps less demanding when the number of years travelled is relatively small and the reader is moving back to an earlier time in his or her own country. As a British reviewer, I’ve had a lifetime to immerse myself in contemporary culture, but I also have the benefit of oral history from family members and older friends about how the culture has changed over the years. School began the process of introducing earlier times and subsequent reading has filled in some of the gaps. However, this all breaks down when the reader comes to a completely different culture and, in real terms, you can’t get much more different than Japanese culture in June, 1565. Our heroes are Matsui Hiro, a shinobi assassin, and Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. For reasons unknown, someone has paid the relevant guild of assassins to send one of their more experienced members to guard the priest while he’s in Japan. Ostensibly, our ninja is a translator but, through his guidance and practical assistance, he actually keeps the priest alive. From our point of view, it also gives us the chance for a running critique on how well (or badly) the Portuguese man is fitting in with local culture. This is an elegant device because it unobtrusively allows the author to explain how this rather opaque class structure and less overtly emotional culture actually works. For once, an author has satisfied my Goldilocks tests. Too often, authors overexplain, leaving the book as dry and rather didactic. This is just right!
The second impressive feature is the prose. If you’re going to write about Japan. it’s better to do so in a minimalist style. If you pick up any modern Japanese text in translation, authors do not go in for flowery language. It’s an essentially functional means of conveying meaning with very little adornment. As in the spoken version, there’s an implied subtext of meaning the reader is expected to supply from the few pointers given. While allowing for the need to explain much of what’s going on, Susan Spann has contrived to produce a text that’s surprisingly Japanese in spirit.
This leaves me with the plot which is set against a fairly well-travelled background of practical politics in the higher levels of the shogunate. As the shogun is the most powerful man in Japan, more important than the emperor, there’s always plotting to depose him and then control who succeeds based on family status and political power. Since a visit between the shogun (one of the Ashikaga clan) and one particularly powerful faction led by Lord Oda is about to take place, the murder of Saburo, a senior individual (and the shogun’s cousin) within the shogunate, is a dangerous warning sign, particularly because it was this individual’s job to set the schedule of guards within the shogun’s enclave. Because his knife was used, suspicion first falls on Ito Kazu, Matsui Hiro’s drinking companion and fellow assassin, who makes life difficult for himself by refusing to say where he was. When it’s explained why this man is unlikely to be the killer, suspicion then falls on Saburo’s wife, the current mistress, the stable boy who also loved the mistress, the master carpenter, and so on. This is also an excuse to look at different people within the rigid Japanese class structure and to see how they relate to each other. Put all this together and you have a beautifully balanced historical mystery with a clearly articulated murder puzzle to solve set in a particularly unstable time at the top of the political tree with different factions pushing for more power and influence. Blade of the Samurai is strongly recommended.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.