Betrayal at Iga

Written by Susan Spann
Review by Thomas j. Howley

In 1565 Japan, different clan groups are struggling with each other, while some are trying to rule the entire country. Hiro Hattori is both a samurai and a shinobi, which are what the Japanese call ninjas. He is also a first-class criminal detective. Hiro’s sidekick is Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo. This unlikely duo, bonded by oath and friendship, returns to Hiro’s home clan just in time to witness an ugly poisoning. This murder occurs during peace negotiations with a rival clan which also happens to be filled with samurai and shinobi assassins.

To avoid a clan war, Hiro and Father Mateo agree to find the killer, but they only have three days; otherwise, war is inevitable. Everyone is a potential assassin: both men and women, and especially women, including mothers and grandmothers. More corpses turn up as the two have to deal with “unreliable witnesses and shifting evidence.” Somehow they cut through the deception and confront the killer in a suspenseful ending.

If the reader is expecting a James Clavell Shōgun-like historical epic, this is not the place. It is exactly as advertised: “A Shinobi Mystery.” I’d consider it a cozy detective story, but one lavishly overlaid with rich cultural and ethnographic insights into Japan of the 16th century, when it was still comparatively isolated. It may help to read the earlier books in the series. The author provides a helpful glossary of Japanese terms, a necessity in books of this type. Though it’s not my favorite genre within historical fiction, I did indeed like this book and can easily recommend it.