Reading the Past

An Unlikely Partnership

Ghost of the Bamboo Road (A Hiro Hattori Novel) by Susan Spann

Susan Spann has recently published Ghost of the Bamboo Road, (Simon & Schuster 2019), the seventh novel in her Hiro Hattori series, set in 16th century Japan. “Spann is meticulous about the details but weaves in various aspects of this medieval, foreign culture so skilfully, the reader is never taken out of the story with mere information,” was the verdict of the Historical Novel Society reviewer, Mary Burns, on the second book in the series, Blade of the Samurai. In 2015 Spann was chosen as Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year.

This ability to include enough detail, but not too much, is something Spann is conscious of when writing.

“I try to focus only on the details I need to immerse the reader in the time, place, and setting—and to keep the story moving,” she explains, “While still ensuring that the historical details I include are both accurate and historically plausible.”

16th century historical novels are more likely to tread the well-worn path of subjects like the Tudors, but Spann has always been fascinated by what Japan was like during that turbulent century. She has loved, and studied, Japanese history and culture all her life. In college, she majored in Asian studies, with a focus on medieval Japanese history, art/architecture, and culture.

“I have always liked the 16th century in particular because so much was happening (culturally and politically) in Japan at that time,” she says.

Spann acknowledges Agatha Christie as one of her all-time favourite authors.  Fans of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (Collins Crime Club 1934) will enjoy the claustrophobic atmosphere of protagonist and characters trapped in a snowy village.

Each novel explores different elements of the culture, despite being set in the same time and country. Spann does this by choosing victims (and killers, and methods of death) that allow her to send her detectives—and, by extension, the readers—into those particular areas. Ghost of the Bamboo Road delves into the culture of the supernatural, as well as the troubles faced by villagers in the remoter regions of Japan’s medieval travel roads.

Although resident in the USA, Spann makes regular research visits to Japan. When writing Ghost of the Bamboo Road, she hiked one of the ancient travel roads three times to get the details right. The characteristics of the road are not just interesting background; they are important to the plot. Spann explains why.

“Japan’s historical travel roads were frequently-traveled and well-maintained, but also subject to dramatic changes as a result of natural disasters,” she says. In several places, historians and priests explained the way the roads would shift in the wake of these disasters, often as a result of falling trees or landslides that damaged portions of the roads that ran through mountainous areas. I wanted Ghost of the Bamboo Road to include a landslide to force the characters to deal with the way the changing physical landscape had an impact on the roads (as well as the people who lived and worked along them)”.

The detective duo who feature in each of the books are an unlikely combination – a Japanese ninja and a Portuguese Jesuit priest. The ninja detective, and main protagonist, Hiro, was not the result of preplanning.

“In a sense, my ninja detective, Hiro, chose me,” she says. “He jumped into my head fully formed.”

The Jesuit priest, Father Mateo plays Watson to Hiro’s Sherlock Holmes. While narrator Watson’s solid common sense serves primarily as counterpoint to Holmes in terms of solving a problem, the dramatic contrast between Hiro and Mateo serves a dual purpose. It is also entirely possible from the perspective of authenticity.

“Since the mid-16th century was not only the height of the historical ninjas’ influence in Japan, but also a narrow window when Westerners (Portuguese Jesuits) were permitted to live and work in Japan, a Portuguese priest seemed like an excellent foil for Hiro, as well as a useful tool for translating Japanese culture to the reader.”

Rather than narrative explanations of burial practices, village superstitions and Japanese concepts of honour, the Portuguese priest constantly questions what is going on and why. This is a similar approach to the Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus modern detective novels by Faye Kellerman (HarperCollins) where orthodox Jewish practices are explained through the technique of having a man brought up as a Southern Baptist (Decker) marrying an orthodox Jewish woman (Lazarus).

Spann is very aware of the Holmes and Watson parallels, but explains that in the case of her characters,

“Father Mateo developed into a far stronger character than I anticipated. I originally planned him to play the role of ‘Western Dr. Watson’ to Hiro’s Japanese Sherlock Holmes. In reality, each one brings unique strengths (and weaknesses) to what has become a far more balanced partnership,” she says.

Spann is committed to portraying “the culture and its people honestly and accurately.” She acknowledges that there were many things that are difficult for modern people to accept in the culture of 16th century Japan, and which she personally disagrees with. However (in comparison to, say Tudor England of that period) Japan was more enlightened in many aspects.

“16th century Japanese women were allowed to own and inherit property, to own businesses, and to belong to many artisans’ guilds in their own right’” she explains. “While many women were subservient, many others were independent, and many even took a leading role in their communities.”

Beyond that, she aims to avoid stereotypes and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

A.J Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She is writing a series set in 17th century England about the English Civil War. Book 2, “The Tawny Sash” will be released in 2020.

(This feature article first appeared on the Historical Novel Society website in 2020.)

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