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, traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and horseback riding. She keeps a marine aquarium where she raises seahorses and rare corals.
You can find Susan online at her website or on Twitter @SusanSpann. Her debut Shinobi mystery, Claws of the Cat (Minotaur Books) released on July 16, 2013
CURSES! Foiled by a Priest… by Susan Spann
The idea to write a mystery series featuring a ninja detective popped into my head as a fully formed idea: “most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.” As a lifelong fan of mysteries and thrillers, I knew at once that a ninja (shinobi, in the Japanese pronunciation) would make a compelling detective, but the idea made me nervous for several reasons.
I studied medieval Japan in college, and loved the history and culture, but I knew most readers would not know much about the beautiful, and brutal, world of the samurai. I didn’t want to leave them behind, so I needed someone or something to bridge the gap. I also needed some compelling reason for my ninja detective, Hiro, to shed his assassin’s ways in favor of sleuthing.
After careful thought and a little research, I realized I needed a priest.
The Portuguese arrived in Japan in 1543, and the Jesuits followed soon after. Shinobi acted as spies and bodyguards as well as assassins, so forcing my ninja to guard a priest was the perfect way to produce the motive and opportunity Hiro needed to solve a murder. It also gave me a pair of Western eyes through which to explore and interpret Japanese culture.
More research revealed an unnamed priest who arrived in Japan from Portugal (by way of China) in 1563. I based my fictitious Jesuit, Father Mateo, on this priest. Claws of the Cat takes place in 1565, so when the book opens Father Mateo has spent two years in Japan. I needed that “offstage time” to bring him up to speed on basic Japanese culture – the things most readers would already know – because while I wanted Father Mateo to serve as a lens for Japanese culture, I didn’t want to talk down to readers with unnecessary explanations.
Father Mateo also serves as a useful foil for Hiro’s agnostic worldview. While both Hiro and Father Mateo have a strong, individual dedication to honor, their definitions of honor – like their worldviews – don’t always match, and sometimes even conflict. Father Mateo helps me bring Hiro into sharper focus by offering a useful contrast, and Hiro does the same for his Jesuit sidekick. Their differences also provide opportunities for tension—for example, in a shinobi’s world, lies present no problem, but for a Jesuit priest dedicated to truth as well as honor, Hiro’s falsehoods create a serious problem indeed.
While writing Claws of the Cat, I was surprised to discover the depth of the bond between Hiro and Father Mateo. Their friendship developed and strengthened throughout the manuscript, and by the time I finished the novel I realized it was more than just a mystery – it had also become a “buddy story.” That unexpected bond made Claws of the Cat great fun to write. It’s a about friendship as well as murder, the clash of cultures, geishas, ninjas, and samurai.
And there’s also a kitten – because every ninja detective needs a feisty kitten, particularly when his Jesuit foil is also allergic to cats.
Thanks so much for being my guest today, Susan. I enjoyed Claws of the Cat and appreciated the feisty kitten addition to your lineup of characters. That was fun.
I don’t read a lot of historical novels or mysteries that are set before the 1900s, so I wasn’t sure how much I’d like Susan’s setting. As it turned out, I found the story a real treat. A good plot, likable characters, interesting historical facts and background, and a convenient glossary to help me with the foreign words. When the next book in the shinobi series comes out, I’ll be first in line for another good read.