Want some enlightening escapism? Try this ninja detective thriller set in 16th-century Japan

Betrayal at Iga

A Hiro Hattori Novel

Susan Spann

Seventh Street Books, paperback

In this fifth novel in Susan Spann’s Hiro Hattori series, danger starts on page one and doesn’t let up until almost the very end.

Set in 16th-century Japan, the series focuses on Hiro Hattori, a master ninja from the Iga province who once refused a commander’s orders and is now serving what is supposed to be a long, humiliating punishment. Hiro is tasked with protecting a Portuguese Jesuit priest named Father Mateo, who, at first, speaks insufficient Japanese and doesn’t understand how easily he could be hurt or killed for inadvertently blundering over an important local custom or taboo.

During the four previous books of the series, Hiro grudgingly has been helping Father Mateo get a better grip on feudal Japan, its rulers, its warlords and its strict and unforgiving social order. Along the way, the ninja and the priest also have been thrust into situations where they have had to work together to solve some murders.

In Betrayal at Iga, Father Mateo now is more knowledgeable and comfortable with being in Japan, speaking its language and reaching a few Christian converts. And Hiro has recognized that the foreign priest is an honorable man in his own way. Hiro now admits that he and Father Mateo have become friends. But it is a time of trouble, so he and the Portuguese Jesuit have had to take refuge among Hiro’s clan. And, in their “safety,” they soon discover they are sheltering in a village where many people are trained assassins.

Indeed, when an ambassador from a neighboring clan appears and tries to negotiate a peace agreement with Iga, he is poisoned during a welcoming dinner and dies right in front of Hiro and Father Mateo.

If the killer is not found soon, war may break out between the ninjas of each clan. Or Hiro and Father Mateo themselves may be killed. No pressure at all on the two investigators!

The author, Susan Spann, has a degree in Asian history and has maintained a lifelong fascination with Japanese history and culture. She has an excellent eye for detail and creates believable settings and scenes without bogging down her smooth writing. She also has her characters speak with straightforward, accessible dialogue.

Betrayal at Iga is fine escapism: a 16th-century ninja detective procedural. The story also offers subtle and absorbing lessons in Japanese history, geography, customs, warfare, love, honor and friendship.

It’s five-star reading and definitely recommended if you are looking for something well beyond an ordinary detective thriller.

Si Dunn