Monday, May 15, 2006

Starting low and gradually raising the bar with each book is a good way to make sure that a writer will be around for awhile – especially if that low start disguises a shrewd sense of character and a formidable narrative engine.
Naomi Hirahara’s first book about Mas Arai, a 70-year widowed gardener who still keeps a few clients in and around the Torrance and Gardena sections of Southern Los Angeles mostly to pay for his gambling addiction, involved Mas – one of those people born in America of Japanese parents who returned to Japan (in Arai’s unfortunate case, to Hiroshima) because of the Great Depression – in a mystery that blended history and current events. In her second book, Mas’s not-so-much-estranged-as-distant daughter, Mari, who lives in New York, actually asked for his help.
Proving that no good deed goes unpunished, Mas is now drafted into a case closer to home: a shrewd lawyer named G. I. Hasuike who helped out Mari is about to be charged with the murder of a friend and fellow Vietnam War veteran who was sliced with a bayonet almost immediately after winning $500,000 on a Las Vegas slot machine.
Because G.I. has an Okinawan lady friend, a private detective, we learn a lot (but not too much) about that Japanese island and its unusual history. The “snakeskin shamisen” of the title is in fact an Okinawan musical instrument which plays an important plot role. We also absorb many details of the kind of Asian cuisine that is definitely not haute, from a celebration blowout at a Hawaiian eatery to Mas’s own taste for Spam sushi – “referred to as Spam musubi” -- as a midnight snack.
But most of all we realize that Hirahara knows Arais intimately, that the guise of a crotchety, not too sharp senior citizen is just a way of keeping the world at a distance. “Mas tried not to stretch his mind to connect the dots too early,” she writes. “His experience was once you thought you figured something out, you inevitably ended up surprised in the end.”