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Snakeskin Shamisen, Naomi Hirahara, Delta, $12.00.

Snakeskin Shamisen by Naomi Hirahara

Naomi Hirahara won an Edgar this year for this novel in the best Paperback Original category. It is certainly original, and the best thing about it is Hirahara's main character, Mas Arai, an elderly and mostly retired Japanese gardener living in L.A. Mas has lived through the bombing of Hiroshima and so nothing fazes him too much - he has a very Asian way of reacting to things (i.e., not showing much), and that makes him a perfect P.I., as he's observant, quiet (see Tony Hillerman for why this is important in a good detective), and more or less an economic outsider in wealthy L.A. As everyone knows, outsiders make the best P.I.s. His fluency with Japanese gets him a long way as well, and when an old friend of his invites him to a celebration party for a big gambling win, Mas reluctantly agrees to attend - mostly for the food.

Unfortunately, things don't end well as the man who won the money, his friend's friend, is murdered in the parking lot at the end of the evening. As Mas had brought a screwdriver along with him (it's his car key) he seems suspicious and is called back to answer a few questions by the police. His old friend, G.I., asks Mas to help him find the killer, and since Mas owes him a debt (G.I. is a lawyer who helped Mas out with some family legal difficulties) he reluctantly agrees. He thus is roped into accompanying G.I,'s girlfriend, Juanita, around L.A. and Hirahara describes his attitude beautifully and succinctly, especially after Juanita has requested that he be her translator: "He wanted to just go along for the ride, like a dog in the passenger seat of any other pickup truck. Dogs liked the window open so the wind could hit their faces. They had no intention, however, of taking control of the entire car".

This type of writing, concise yet vividly evocative, takes Hirahara a long way, and that and the richly drawn character of Mas sustain her book through a plot that sometimes too complicated. The McGuffin or Holy Grail of the story is an antique shamisen, a three stringed Japanese instrument, covered in python skin and held together with bone pegs. It inspires more emotion from any of the characters than the actual deaths involved, some of which are in the distant past (the 50's) and while relevant to the story, sometimes serve only to confuse the narrative. Much of the plot is tied to the culture of Okinawa, which is neither truly Japanese or Chinese, but which has lived under the thumb of various foreign governments for so long that much of the culture is in exile.

The details of the Okinawan culture, as well as the life of ordinary Japanese in present day L.A., make the book worth the price of admission, as does Mas, who enjoys his food, loves his daughter, and goes about his life trying to bother no-one, yet as many people he encounters throughout the course of the story say, he "notices things". He does indeed, and it made me want to know Mas Arai just a little bit better.

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