She’s got a favorite word—defenestrate.
(You’ll find out why in the Q & A.)
We’ll have to find out if she finds a way to use it in an upcoming Shinobi mystery. There are likely to be quite a few. When I saw Susan Spann speak in Denver at The Tattered Cover back in September, (if I heard her correctly) she said she has the rough outline done for the first two dozen or so novels.
If you read Claws of the Cat, you’ll recognize there’s a certain authority and confidence to the storytelling that makes you think she can pull it off—with ease.
A review follows, but first a chat with Susan Spann.
Question: Of all the gin joints, I mean….of all the time periods to choose from and all the cultures and societies to choose from, why this one? What was the moment of inspiration and what made you realize this would be the setting for your series?
Susan Spann: I’ve loved Japanese culture ever since I read Shogun (and watched the miniseries) back in the ‘70s – and yes, I’m dating myself a little there. I majored in Asian Studies at college, and love to read both fiction and nonfiction about medieval Japan.
The inspiration for the Shinobi Mysteries didn’t come to me until much later, though. In March or April of 2011, while standing in front of the bathroom mirror getting ready for work, I had the idea: “Most ninjas commit murders, but Hiro Hattori solves them.” It sprang to mind, fully formed, and I knew immediately that I had to write that series.
Question: Did the character of Hiro come first or Father Mateo? How did you imagine these two collaborating and first meeting, trusting each other, working together?
Susan Spann: Hiro came first, but Father Mateo came along almost immediately thereafter. I knew I needed a pair of Western eyes to translate some of the beautiful but unfamiliar Japanese customs I wanted to include in the books. Also, every Holmes needs a Watson, so giving Hiro a foil just made sense. That said, I didn’t expect the characters’ relationship to develop as quickly as it did, or to have the kind of “buddy story” depth that it acquired in the initial drafts of Claws of the Cat. That was a wonderful surprise.
Question: Is there something about this society and culture that you think is instructive or informative about life in the 21st century in the United States?
Susan Spann: Absolutely. The people of 16th century Japan faced many of the same religious, economic, and societal conflicts we see in modern culture. Conflict between the samurai elite and the increasingly wealthy merchant class, conflicts between different religious systems, and “growing pains” as the Japanese struggled to emerge from some outdated societal norms. Although the details change with time, the underlying themes of money, power, religion, and human interactions are universal.
Plus, they had some wicked cool swords.
Question: The general assumption might be that the world of ninjas and samurai would be fairly violent, but Claws of the Cat keeps the fighting to a minimum. How did you approach thinking about the sword play and battles as you wrote?
Susan Spann: Actually, I wouldn’t mind more violence, but I can’t introduce it unless the action fits with the narrative flow and the larger series arc. (I have to hold back some cool weapons and fighting techniques for later books in the series.) Fortunately, since real shinobi (ninjas, to Western readers) trained in skills that ranged from fighting to stealth, poisons and even explosives, I have a lot of room to vary the action as the series continues.
Also, the action has to blend with an opposing reality that also existed in medieval Japan – a violent society prevents chaos by insisting on high levels of personal control. Samurai could be violent, but they also lived by rigid rules of etiquette that helped to keep warrior instincts under control. The starting point for each of my stories is a moment when control and etiquette fail, and violence breaks free.
Question: Tell us about your research process? How do you know when you’ve got what you need?
Susan Spann: I love research. Since I’m writing a series, a lot of the “macro” research preceded writing Claws of the Cat, to build the world and the larger series arc which weaves through a number of major events in Japanese history. With each new book, I research the specific setting—for example, Claws took place in the teahouse culture, but the second novel, Blade of the Samurai, moves to the shogun’s palace, so I needed to research shogunate architecture, culture, and traditions in detail before I started writing the story.
The research continues during the drafting process. I usually put the research down for the first two drafts, and then do final “detail work” while editing through drafts 3 and 4. That’s the point where I answer questions like “what kind of flowers would sit in a vase in a 16th century Kyoto teahouse during the month of May?” and “what kind of ceilings did the shogun’s palace have in 1565?” Those fine details take time, so I don’t research them until I know the scene won’t end up cut from the final novel.
Question: You’re a lawyer. I’m going to be gentle here but, a profession not known for clear language. Can you spell “obfuscation”? So I am intrigued by your clean, clear, precise prose style. Is that your fiction writing style or professional style, or both?
Susan Spann: I love the word obfuscate, in part because it rhymes with my all-time favorite word: defenestrate. (As a mystery writer, I understand the need for specialized verb to hurl people out of windows.)
I try to write as cleanly and sparely as possible, both in fiction and in legal prose. If the words fulfill their roles correctly, extra ones become a form of clutter. Although I like to read authors who use “more words” than I do, my personal style tends to echo the Japanese culture in which I write – simple but evocative. At least, that’s what I aim for.
Thank you so much for giving me the chance to talk with you about writing and Claws of the Cat. I truly appreciate the opportunity!
There’s blood in the teahouse. Honor is stake. Codes govern nearly every interaction. There’s a foreigner in our midst and he’s, well, Christian.
We’re in 16th century, medieval Japan. Kyoto. There’s a problem of the retired samurai who’s been violently attacked in a teahouse and left to die, his loincloth so soaked with blood that it is stuck to his hips. His throat is “ruined.” The vase holding hydrangeas is spattered with blood. The suspect list is short. At least, at first. There’s certainly an obvious suspect and there’s a nifty ticking clock—a local magistrate concedes to a few days of grace to figure out who wielded the knife and left such a mess.
Father Mateo is the Portugese priest and his protector is Hiro, a well-respected samurai who is working undercover. Hiro is Father Mateo’s shadow (shadows are a powerful undercurrent to the whole story; so are masks) and the two form an odd pair of detectives who learn to trust each other’s strengths as they pursue their cause with careful logic, shrewd tact and the occasional trap.
With its sharp-eyed plot and rich atmosphere, Susan Spann’s “Claws of the Cat” transports the reader back five centuries to a culture of contrasts. With Father Mateo in tow, we see and learn the multi-faceted rules and customs from the earthen street to the halls of power. As others have noted, this is a full-blown immersion into the culture and society at that time. There’s a bit of hand-holding along the way as details are explained, but the observations are sprinkled in as relevant notes for Hiro, Father Mateo or the investigation. Or all three. With her clean, precise prose style, Spann makes the social studies tidbits belong like a blossom on a cherry tree.
This is a murder mystery for thinking readers. You’ll want to keep a spare finger or thumb in Spann’s handy glossary and you’ll want to see if you can out think Father Mateo and Hiro. If you avoid mysteries because they lean toward suspense or cheap thrills, you’ll enjoy “Claws of the Cat” because it respects the reader’s brainpower. The thrill is in spotting every relevant detail and, of course, it’s in the catch. Spann plays fair and gives a good game. Just remember: A shinobi’s first and greatest defense is misdirection.