The star of a murder-mystery can be as ridiculous as the Pink Panther, or as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes. Mystery novels starring Asian American detectives, however, can elicit uncomfortable memories of the mock Confucian sayings and Fu Manchu mustaches of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan. Naomi Hirahara keeps the genre fresh in her third Mas Arai mystery Snakeskin Shamisen by eschewing cheap narrative device and broad caricature. Like Agatha Christie’s wildly successful Miss Marple series, Hirahara’s books hinge upon unlikely sleuth Mas Arai. A Nisei Los Angeles gardener who loves Spam musubi and avoids small talk, Arai is a reluctant detective who, almost despite himself, possesses a rare mix of clumsy charisma, stubbornness and savvy. As one character remarks in Snakeskin: “This man, omoshiroi … He looks like nobody special, but he has a head for things. Smarter than he looks.” The fact that Mas is nobody special, a gruff kibei gardener who speaks broken English and hesitant Japanese, makes him effective as a detective and lovable as a character.
Snakeskin Shamisen is set in LA, Mas Arai’s home turf. Randy, a friend of Mas’s friend GI, wins a $500,000 jackpot and Mas feels obligated to attend the party at a local restaurant. There we meet a variety of partygoers — or suspects — and at the end of the evening someone murders the lottery winner. Ho-hum, sounds like every classic mystery set-up, right? I have to admit that after the first few chapters I was unenthused as well. To fulfill his obligation to GI, Mas agrees to assist in unofficially investigating the murder. The plot becomes interesting when Mas discovers that the killer left a shamisen at the scene of the crime, indicating that the murder might have been motivated by something other than money. While the police investigate their own leads, Mas uses his contacts in the Japanese American community to understand how the shamisen relates to the murder. Hirahara adds layer upon layer to the mystery, implicating residents of a Japanese rest home, a band of shamisen enthusiasts, a group of no-good Nisei gardeners, and even the INS. Anticipation builds as Mas discovers how the parts relate and how the suspects are connected.
The plot is gripping and the book is quite a page-turner, but it would not be as entertaining without the colorful characters Hirahara introduces along the way. Ichiro “Itchy” Iwasaki, is an old poker-playing friend of Mas’s who has “little cupped brown ears like those of a monkey,” and who “often pulled his right earlobe before making it a bet.” Wishbone Tanaka is a former friend with hair shaped in a “ducktail that looked like wild beach grasses gone awry,” and who is as “unmanageable as his hair.” In these characters, Hirahara hilariously captures Nisei eccentricities. The most glorious example is the friendship between Mas and his best friend Haruo. Mas appears at the door of Haruo’s house holding two fugitive criminals. He tells Haruo: “Gotta borrow your house.” Haruo replies, “Yah, datsu orai. But Spoon and her family comin’ to pick me up for dinner, so you gotta be out of here by seven.” Haruo then presses the criminals to take home some kaki harvested from his tree and offers them glasses of Sprite. Hirahara’s detailed characterization makes these old-timers so real, we can imagine her borrowing from a deaf great-uncle here or a forgetful grandfather there.
Gasa-Gasa Girl, the Mas Arai mystery preceding Snakeskin Shamisen, is less effective because it lacks such clever characterizations. In this mystery Mas leaves LA to visit his daughter Mari in New York, but soon after he arrives, Mari’s millionaire boss is killed. Mas spends most of his time wandering alone in the city, using his Nisei flower market connections to investigate a suspicious gardenia dropped at the crime scene. Mas’s strained relationship with Mari fuels the narrative. She is the gasa-gasa girl of the title, “constantly restless, constantly moving.” Erratic and harsh, she has “flashes of explosive anger.” The emotional distance between father and daughter affects the tone of the book, and Mas is awkward in a “territory where he doesn’t belong.” The coldness of the setting and characters reinforces this awkwardness, but there is little humor injected to make it “orai.” Gasa-Gasa Girl is perhaps more ambitious beyond a simple murder-mystery book because it deals with father-daughter relationships and generational differences. But it lacks the humor that makes the Mas Arai mysteries so entertaining.
Snakeskin Shamisen is filled with color, but there are times when Hirahara takes the cultural anecdote a little too far. She often strays from the plot at key dramatic moments to explain cultural practices or define Japanese terms. When Mas confronts a suspect, for example, Hirahara chooses this time to give a lesson on keigo. She interrupts the altercation with: “Japanese language was full of rules that were difficult to remember. It was all about who you were and who you were talking to …” Towards the end of the book, as Mas is close to solving the mystery, he investigates suspects at an Okinawan Association concert. Rather than building anticipation, Hirahara digresses by spending half a page describing in detail every dish that Mas eats at the concert: “Okinawan dango, which Chizuko herself used to make on special occasions, dozens of fried round donuts in different trays and pans … trayfuls of cut-up pork and goya, bitter melon … sliced and cooked, the goya, which was brilliant yellow inside, with orange seeds, was pretty, outside ridged like the petals of a flower.” Clever details add to Hirahara’s character development, but too much cultural explanation slows the pacing of the book.
Hirahara was born in Pasadena, where her father had a landscaping business. After earning a BA from Stanford in International Relations, Hirahara spent many years as the editor of the Rafu Shimpo in LA. Her experience at Rafu, working with many Japanese American community groups, richly informs Snakeskin. Hirahara proves that she knows much about the inner politics of Japanese American groups, and she understands the Japanese American psyche. Naomi Hirahara once again hits her stride with Shamisen, and we can heartily look forward to more installments of this mystery series.