“Blade of the Samurai,” by Susan Spann: History and Murder

Historical mysteries offer the reader a great deal.

 A good mystery novel features a solid plot, unique characters and, usually, a sense of justice.

But a good historical mystery offers one thing more: a chance to vicariously experience another time and place. Today’s case in point is “Blade of the Samurai,” by Susan Spann.

Spann’s Shinobi Mystery series features Hiro Hattori, a trained ninja assassin, and the man he is sworn to protect, Father Mateo, a Jesuit priest. The setting is 16th century Japan, where complex politics and a rigid class structure form the backdrop for complex murders.

Spann certainly knows the history of this period, and her books offer a deep immersion into the etiquette and culture of the time and place. The reader can learn a great deal about Eastern culture while collecting clues and trying to solve the puzzle before Hiro does.

It’s fun stuff.

This is the second book of Spann’s series. Everything I have said thus far about “Blade” applies equally to the series debut, “Claws of the Cat.” I enjoyed “Claws” a great deal, but found “Blade” to be more compelling. It moves at a good clip, and interpersonal relationships form a solid foundation for the murder mystery. I liked trying to piece together the puzzle, while learning about a time and place that is rather alien to this Ohio boy.

The characters are as interesting as the history. The protagonist, Hiro, is our window into a secret world, and his friend Father Mateo is our Western filter. I greatly enjoy the contrast between Hiro’s rigid way of accepting the strictures of class relationships and highly disciplined observance of the society’s rules with Father Mateo’s stubborn insistence on treating each person he meets as an equal. In “Claws” it is Mateo’s quiet faith and dignity that drives the story. In “Blade,” Hiro is a bit more of a plot driver. The two characters work well together in both books, despite their different backgrounds, and I look forward to seeing their relationship develop as the series continues. I am way behind, by the way. There are several more Shinobi Mysteries for me to catch up on.

I first heard of Spann’s ninja detective on Twitter, where the author, an attorney, tweets about the legalities of the publishing business — something I appreciated while I was seeking an agent and publisher for my own historical mysteries. The idea of a ninja detective seemed intriguing, and I knew I had to check it out. I was not disappointed.

I am reading the series in order, because I am stubborn that way, but you don’t have to follow suit. The sixth Hiro Hattori novel, “Betrayal at Iga,”  is due out this summer, and there is at least one more coming beyond that. This is good news, and I will read all of these novels.


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