From Summer of the Big Bachi to Gasa-Gasa Girl, Naomi Hirahara’s acclaimed novels have featured one of mystery fiction’s most unique heroes: Mas Arai, a curmudgeonly L.A. gardener, Hiroshima survivor, and inveterate gambler.
Few things get Mas more excited than gambling, so when he hears about a $500,000 win–from a novelty slot machine!–he’s torn between admiration and derision. But the stakes are quickly raised when the winner, a friend of Mas’s pal G. I. Hasuike, is found stabbed to death just days later. The last thing Mas wants to do is stick his nose in someone else’s business, but at G.I.’s prodding he reluctantly agrees to follow the trail of a battered snakeskin shamisen (a traditional Okinawan musical instrument) left at the scene of the crime…and suddenly finds himself caught up in a dark mystery that reaches from the islands of Okinawa to the streets of L.A.–a world of heartbreaking memories, deception, and murder.
In youth-obsessed Los Angeles, maturity and reticence work in favor of the 70ish gardener Mas Arai, Hirahara's reluctant hero, as he gets drawn into his highly enjoyable third mystery (after 2005's Gasa-Gasa Girl). Mas leaves a party held for a friend at a Hawaiian restaurant early, but when the guest of honor turns up dead, Mas has to return to the restaurant to answer questions about anything suspicious he might have observed. A broken shamisen (a stringed instrument similar to a banjo) found at the crime scene, he realizes, indicates that the seeds of the murder were sown in Okinawa during WWII. As a Hiroshima survivor, Mas has his misgivings about examining the past too closely, but his strong sense of right and wrong propels him toward a just resolution. Hirahara's sharp ear for dialogue and keen sense of place mark this as a superior read, but it's her intimate view of the Japanese-American community and her wry portrait of the endearing Mas, with his fondness for gambling and Spam, that really make this series stand out.