When I was offered the opportunity to read the Ninja’s Daughter by Susan Spann, I jumped on it. From what I could tell, the novel featured two subjects that I was
interested obsessed with: mysteries and Japanese history. Yet, the longer this novel sat on the corner of my dining room table, the more reluctant I became to read it. I hyper-focused on the idea of the main character, Hiro Hattori, being a master ninja detective and couldn’t help but wonder if I was launching myself into to weird, campy martial arts story reminiscent of those poorly dubbed kung-fu movies of the 1970s. (Yes, yes, I know those 1970s kung fu movies came from China, not Japan). Instead, I discovered the Ninja’s Daughter to be a compelling mystery set in the complex world of feudal Japan right at the end of the Muromachi period.
Released: August 2016
Publisher: Seventh Street Books
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Autumn, 1565: When an actor’s daughter is murdered on the banks of Kyoto’s Kamo River, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo are the victim’s only hope for justice.
As political tensions rise in the wake of the shogun’s recent death, and rival warlords threaten war, the Kyoto police forbid an investigation of the killing, to keep the peace–but Hiro has a personal connection to the girl, and must avenge her. The secret investigation leads Hiro and Father Mateo deep into the exclusive world of Kyoto’s theater guilds, where they quickly learn that nothing, and no one, is as it seems. With only a mysterious golden coin to guide them, the investigators uncover a forbidden love affair, a missing mask, and a dangerous link to corruption within the Kyoto police department that leaves Hiro and Father Mateo running for their lives.
Hiro and Father Mateo must discover the link between a golden coin, a missing mask, and the death of a young woman associated from one of Kyoto’s theater guilds. All of the suspects harbor secrets that threaten reputations, so there is a constant veil of deceit that only Hiro seems to pick up on because of his master ninja skills (also his familiarity of Japanese nuances compared to his Portuguese sleuthing companion). Despite their weeping eyes, it’s hard to feel sympathy for any of the suspects because their reluctance to cooperate comes off as selfish instead of simply defensive. I suppose that sounds like an unpleasant read, but I actually kind of liked it. I suppose I’ve been in the mood for unlikable characters lately. But I digress! I even had a hard time feeling sympathy for the victim– not because she may or may not have become a lady of the night to purchase her freedom (freedom in a metaphorical sense, not literal) but because of the ways she exploited her family.
That being said, the scene where the perpetrator is revealed is kind of a let down. All of the suspects are sitting in a room, and Hiro starts explaining to them why he has determined a certain person could not have committed the crime, until he finally reveals who the real killer is. I can’t help but think of the endings of Scooby Doo mysteries (but with kimonos and the fear of bringing shame to the family).
Spann chose a rather complex time in Japanese history to use as a setting for a mystery series. By 1565, Japan had been steeped in a civil war lasting at least 100 years, and now it is trying to recover after the death of the shogun. To add to the tension, the first waves of European missionaries are making contact on Japanese soil (which would inevitably lead to Japan isolating itself in the following period). It’s a time of samurai and ninjas but also art forms such as flower arrangement, the tea ceremony, and Noh theater. This isn’t merely a backdrop for a mystery. The historical aspect plays a vital role in the series as a whole; the political and military turmoil start to burden the Portuguese missionary and Hiro (a ninja ronin detective!) And Spann writes about this without making the story feel cumbersome. I’m not saying the historical aspect of these books are flawless (I’m not sure how someone just “slips into” their kimono), but they are well researched nonetheless (which, I would expect considering Spann has turned an undergraduate degree in Asian Studies into a lifelong passion for learning about Japan, which she writes about frequently on her blog).
Clearly, I owe the Ninja’s Daughter by Susan Spann a thousand apologies for ever thinking it was going to be campy. It was engaging and surprisingly complex compared to the usual mystery I devour. On top of that, I’m pretty sure it will be the book that launches me into an obsession with historical fiction novels taking place in Japan. Heian Period, here I come!
I also want to pick up the previous books in the series. Yet again, I started reading a mystery series from the middle, but I really want to know how the death of the shogun affected Hiro, and I really want to know how and why Hiro ended up guarding Father Mateo.