Monday, August 19, 2013

Meet Susan Spann: Need a Detective? Ask a Ninja!

Susan Spann and I share a passion for telling stories against a background of exotic history.  We also share an editor and met on a panel at last spring's Historical Novel Society conference.  There I also found out what a delightful companion she is.  She is a transactional attorney with hobbies including traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, horseback riding, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. Susan has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Her debut novel, Claws of the Cat, which launched this summer, features Hiro Hattori, a ninja detective.  Here she tells us how Hiro came into her life.

Annamaria - Monday

In 2011, I was attacked by ninjas, who forced me to write a mystery series.

OK, that might be a slight exaggeration.

While standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I had a random thought: “Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.” I was in-between manuscripts at the time, and realized at once that I’d found my topic and my sleuth.

Ninjas have become a part of 21st century popular culture. We feature them in films, on Internet memes, and even on coffee mugs – but in medieval Japan, ninja assassins represented a very real threat.

Ninjas – or, more properly, shinobi (“ninja” is based on a Chinese pronunciation of the characters) – were highly trained assassins specializing in a variety of weapons and stealth-based tactics. They also acted as spies for hire. Despite the often contentious relationship between the shinobi clans and the samurai warlords who ruled Japan, samurai frequently hired shinobi to gather information or eliminate troublesome rivals.

Historically, shinobi were masters of unusual weapons, disguises, and misdirection. Samurai favored open hand-to-hand combat with swords and naginata (a type of halberd). Shinobi trained with those weapons, too, but favored daggers, short swords and other easily-concealable items like shuriken (metal stars, used for throwing or as hand-held stabbing weapons).

Shinobi understood death, and also how to hide its cause. They understood that clues could give an assassin away, and studied the various ways to disguise their tracks (literally as well as figuratively). The Shoniniki, a 17th century ninja training manual, describes ten major methods of concealment which range from “concealing yourself by virtue of surrounding noises” to blending in with the enemy’s environment and leaving no trace behind after finishing a clandestine investigation.

This knowledge also enabled shinobi to hunt their victims effectively. It’s hard to hide from a specialist in disguises!

The concept of “private detectives” didn’t exist in medieval Japan, at least in the way we understand it now, but if you wanted a person with the skills to investigate a suspicious murder in medieval Japan, a shinobi is pretty close to the perfect sleuth.

In fact, the biggest problem I had with my ninja detective, Hiro Hattori, was figuring out what would make a successful assassin “jump the line” and start examining corpses instead of creating them. Shinobi didn’t reveal themselves or their occupations to outsiders. When on assignment, they usually disguised themselves as a fairly invisible member of the population at large – a farmer, a low-ranking samurai, or an artisan.

Unfortunately, this standard behavior conflicted with a detective’s need to investigate murders and also with the acquisition of cases. How can a victim’s family find a detective who doesn’t advertise?

Clearly, I needed a priest.

More properly, I needed a realistic assignment that would put Hiro close to a murder and also force him to solve it. Hiro wouldn’t willingly put himself in the public eye, so I shackled him (figuratively) to Father Mateo – a compassionate Portuguese Jesuit who would not let an innocent woman die for a murder she didn’t commit.

But why would Hiro work with a priest? Well, since shinobi were spies and assassins for hire, someone must have hired Hiro to keep the priest out of trouble.

Problem solved!

So now I had a shinobi assassin-turned bodyguard, a Jesuit priest, and an innocent geisha accused of a heinous, bloody crime that only a ninja could solve.

The rest, as they say, is historical mystery.


  1. WOW! I'm in. Interesting stuff.

  2. Mission accomplished, Susan! Your blog post caught my attention enough to check out the book on Amazon, and the sample chapter hooked me into buying the e-book. Damn you! My TBR 'stack' is becoming a threat to all the electrons in the universe! :-)

    1. Thanks Everett! I'm delighted to hear you liked the opening - I hope you enjoy the rest just as much.

      I hear you about the TBR pile, too - I have a big electronic list and also a stack on my bookshelf that USED to be by the bed until the night the cat dumped a stack of books on my head!

  3. Well, Susan, I'm hooked. Or star-stabbed or whatever the appropriate phrase would be. I've always been fascinated by this subject. Even had a shiatsu master friend whose grandfather was a "secret monk" following a life dedicated to teaching some of the very techniques you describe...but for good. In fact, his grandson --my friend--gained US citizenship in part because of his skill in teaching those same martial arts to the Boston Police Force!

    1. Thank you Jeffrey! I love being able to use the real shinobi techniques in the novels. That's really cool about your friend, too - he and his grandfather sound like fascinating people to know.

  4. What a great setting and character for a mystery, and I love the way that you broke down your process of how you came up with these elements and the story.

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed the breakdown, Lisa. Hiro captured my imagination right from the beginning, and I love being able to bring other people into his world.