What Historical Ninjas were all about…

People often ask me about the inspiration for my ninja detective, Hiro Hattori. While the idea came to me in a flash—a ninja who solves murders instead of committing them—finding a logical way to turn an assassin into a detective took more time and effort.

Real, historical ninjas—also called shinobi in Japanese—were spies and assassins employed by members of the ruling samurai class for various kinds of espionage. As a rule, they preferred to remain unnoticed and often disguised themselves as priests, artisans, or other members of the common classes. When not on specific assignments, they either lived as deep-cover operatives in places the clan assigned them or returned to the remote villages where they lived and trained along with their clans.

Not a lifestyle that lends itself to solving crimes.

What Historical Ninjas were all about.In order to solve the problem, I turned to one of the real historical ninjas’ lesser-known occupations . . . that of bodyguard. Samurai could hire ninja clans for a variety of short- and long-term missions, and a ninja hired to protect the life of a person who lived in Kyoto (then the Japanese capital city) would find himself in the thick of the action and able to move around in public. As a bonus, the role of bodyguard allowed my detective to publicly impersonate a ronin, or masterless samurai, because only a samurai was allowed to carry swords or engage in martial occupations.

Giving Hiro a job as a bodyguard got my assassin into a city and out in public, but I still faced a serious problem. Historical ninjas were spies and assassins trained to use any necessary means to complete a mission, and my detective was an experienced assassin with many kills to his credit before becoming a bodyguard.

What would prompt a man like that to try and solve a crime?

Sadly, the historical answer was “nothing.”

Once assigned to protect his target, nothing would divert a ninja from that goal, and my detective wouldn’t endanger the life of the person he was hired to protect by running off to solve someone else’s murder.

Unless the person Hiro was protecting gave him no other choice.

Enter the priest.

Portuguese Jesuits first landed in Japan in 1549, and by 1565 (the year when The Ninja’s Daughter takes place), the Jesuits had established a missionary presence in Japan. A foreign priest presented the perfect companion for my ninja detective on several levels: he could act as a foil for Hiro, provide a cultural filter for readers not familiar with Japanese life and customs, and—best of all—his faith-based sense of justice and love for every human life would send him charging in where ninjas would not tread . . . dragging my hapless detective along behind him.

When I created Father Mateo Ávila de Santos, I realized that Jesuits didn’t normally hire bodyguards. In fact, many Jesuit missionaries ended up as martyrs. However, I found a historically believable (or at least suspension-of-disbelief-able) solution to that problem also: a mysterious benefactor who hired Hiro’s clan (the Iga ryu) to protect the priest. Neither Hiro nor Father Mateo knows the identity of the person who pays the bill, and although I do, my detectives won’t solve that particular mystery for many books to come.

I originally intended for Father Mateo to serve as a “Watson,” essentially a sidekick and foil whose dedication to justice and desire to help the powerless forced Hiro into the detective’s role. However, Father Mateo had other plans. By the end of the first novel, Claws of the Cat, I realized I wasn’t just writing “Holmes & Watson in Samurai Japan.” My series had two detectives who complement one another surprisingly well despite their dramatic personal differences.

In their newest adventure, The Ninja’s Daughter, Hiro and Father Mateo must solve the murder of an actor’s daughter whose body is discovered lying on the banks of Kyoto’s Kamo River. Father Mateo’s insistence on justice once again places the detectives at odds with both tradition and the Kyoto police, but this time Hiro has an unexpected connection to the victim’s family, forcing him to once again follow the Jesuit into danger.

Hiro’s journey from assassin to detective took a lot of research, thought, and planning, but in the end, it wasn’t his skills with a sword that changed this hardened ninja into half of 16th century Kyoto’s best detective team. His sense of honor and his duty to protect the priest, though also involved, weren’t really what did it either.

In the end, it’s Hiro’s friendship with Father Mateo, and their mutual respect for one another, that transformed a spy into a sleuth.


BIO: Susan’s fourth Hiro Hattori Novel (Shinobi Mystery), THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER, released August 2, 2016 from Seventh Street Books.

When not writing or representing clients, Susan enjoys traditional archery, martial arts, horseback riding, online gaming, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. She lives outside Sacramento with her husband, two cats, a multitude of assorted aquatic creatures, and one exceptionally opinionated cockatiel.

Susan is the 2015 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year, a former president of the Northern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and a member of Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Association. She is represented by Sandra Bond of Bond Literary Agency.

You can find Susan online at her website (http://www.susanspann.com), on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/SusanSpannBooks) and on Twitter (@SusanSpann). Please stop by and say hello!