How I Decided to Murder The Ninja’s Daughter

Susan Spann 1Susan Spann is a transactional publishing attorney and the author of the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. Susan has a degree in Asian Studies from Tufts University, where she studied Chinese and Japanese language, history, and culture. Her hobbies include cooking, traditional archery, martial arts, and horseback riding. She lives in northern California with her husband, son, two cats, and an aquarium full of seahorses.

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People often ask where I get the ideas for the crimes that form the centerpieces of my Japanese mystery novels—and they’re usually surprised to learn that the victim and the crime are generally not the inspiration from which the stories spring.

My newest Hiro Hattori novel, The Ninja’s Daughter, was no exception.

During the 16th century, Japan was a collective of often-warring feudal states with a rigid social hierarchy. A person’s social status was determined at birth, and the various classes lived in distinctively different ways. Even within a social class, different groups and guilds had special rules and customs that governed their daily lives.

In each new novel I send my detectives, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo, to solve a crime in a different cultural setting—and that setting forms the inspiration from which everything else in the novel springs.

My original outline for the novel that became The Ninja’s Daughter actually involved the death of a butcher’s daughter, and I intended the book to explore the themes of life and death against the backdrop of the outcaste class. Unfortunately, by the time I’d written half the manuscript, I realized the story didn’t work with an outcaste victim—mainly because, by custom, members of the outcaste class were forbidden to speak to samurai (or even look them in the face) unless spoken to, and even then only with significant restrictions. I still hope to manage a novel with an outcaste victim eventually, but this particular plot required a cast that could speak more freely.

Instead of surrendering the story—which I loved—I put the draft on pause and reconsidered the setting. I’d already started the research for another mystery set in the beautiful but closed-off world of Kyoto’s theater clans, and realized instantly that the plot I designed for a butcher’s daughter worked much better from every angle if I changed the victim to an actor’s daughter.

The Ninja's DaughterLike members of the outcaste class, actors were considered people “outside the norm”—they didn’t belong to one of the four primary social classes: samurai, artisans, farmers, and merchants—but entertainers enjoyed a level of freedom members of the lowest outcaste classes did not have. They could speak in the presence of samurai without their faces pressed to the floor, and performed in temples and samurai homes, giving them physical access to the places the victim’s father—a ninja spy—would need to have.

After a month-long research hiatus, I returned to the manuscript and transformed The Ninja’s Daughter from a story about an outcaste girl to that of an actor’s headstrong daughter with dreams beyond her station. The story worked even better than I anticipated, proving something I’ve always suspected: for me, the setting is truly more important than the crime. A murder can happen anywhere (and, in medieval Japan, they often did) but an interesting murder requires both a body and a fascinating place for the detectives to explore.

An interesting fact: the victim’s father in The Ninja’s Daughter is named “Satsu.” The name means “butcher” in Japanese, and I left it as a nod to the book’s original setting.