Prisoner of Memory

by Denise Hamilton

Published by Scribner

384 pages, 2006

Snakeskin Shamisen

by Naomi Hirahara

Published by Delta

272 pages, 2006






City of Angles

Reviewed by Cindy Chow


If any city proves that America is a melting pot of cultures, it would have to be Los Angeles, California. But the question that must be asked is whether that pot boils over or simmers placidly, and arguments can be made either way, depending on what time period and which culture is being addressed. It can't be denied, though, that racism has overwhelmed the City of Angels throughout its 225-year history and that the events from the past are never truly forgotten. Two new mystery novels have their protagonists confronting the painful persecution of distinct cultures in L.A. with different, but equally traumatic, results.

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Pursuing the story of a mountain lion in Griffith Park, a 4,120-acre chunk of public property in the Santa Monica Mountains, Los Angeles Times reporter Eve Diamond (last seen in 2005's Savage Garden) instead stumbles upon the body of teenager Dennis Lukin, the son of Russian émigré parents. Had that lion done the boy in, this would have been front-page news. Instead, Lukin -- shot to death -- is just another deceased teen, as far as Hamilton's editors are concerned. Nonetheless, the murder begins Diamond's investigation in Prisoner of Memory, an engrossing yarn that will send her chasing after clues and crimes stretching all the way back into the Cold War, and will ultimately lead to her discovering that her own family has secrets, including some that might have been better left hidden away.

Since Eve was first on the scene of the Lukin slaying, it's natural that she would commence the dreaded questioning of the young man's family to discover what could have led to his being killed, execution-style, and his body being dumped on the park trail. A routine task, all in all. But her instincts that this might be more than your average back-of-the-paper crime report are triggered by the uncommon secretiveness of the Lukin household. Forced to go around the deceased teen's parents for information, Eve discovers that Dennis' brother, Nicolai, shares their clan's sense of paranoia, as well as a fascination with Russian history.

After Nicolai, too, falls victim to an attack, Eve realizes that the original target of violence was not Dennis at all, but rather Sasha Lukin, the boys' father, who may still have ties to Mother Russia. As Eve soon discovers, the Cold War is definitely not over for some people, and those who were involved in its arcane spy games still live on to play out their roles. Eve is joined in her pursuit of the elusive Russian agents by Joshua Brandywine, an ambitious fellow reporter whose obvious attraction to Eve complicates her fluctuating relationship with Silvio Aguilar, the Hispanic music promoter who seems to have little time for Eve nowadays, other than as his partner in distinctly unromantic booty calls. Despite the risks to her health and future, Eve digs through leads and misleading history, trying to sort out identities and shifting allegiances, and running up against the Russian mafia. Her trail leads her, in part, to Thomas Clavendish, who was an extremely successful CIA agent until he was brought down in a scandal involving a Mata Hari-like KGB operative. Clavendish remains a bit too connected to the Lukin family; and with that notorious female KGB agent still living in Los Angeles, the web of coincidences and connections is impossible for Eve to ignore.

The Russian affiliation turns full circle when Mischa Tsipin, an illegal immigrant from the largest country on earth, suddenly lands on Eve's doorstep, claiming to be her distant cousin (Eve's mother was Russian) and possessing a rather unsettling amount of information about the Times reporter -- including her credit card numbers. Ever the jaded journalist, well versed in the perversity of human greed, our heroine is quite understandably suspicious of this young man. However, being an orphan, Eve also clings to the hope of finding familial links somewhere, and the temptation to accept an instant family in the warm form of this foreign computer expert has her weakening before Mischa's persistent charm. When her exchanges with Mischa are followed quickly by a violent confrontation with Russian thugs, Eve isn't sure whether to blame her investigation or her purported relative for the drama.

If Eve Diamond is author Hamilton's engaging and evolving star, then Los Angeles is definitely this series' co-star. An L.A. native and former Times reporter herself, Hamilton uses her lengthy background in covering diverse suburban communities to flesh out the myriad cultures permeating California's biggest metropolis -- cultures in which the youngest generation attempts to be as generically "American" as possible, while the older ones often do their best to re-create their country of birth in their segregated neighborhoods. In Prisoner, for the first time, Eve explores her own relationship with her Russian origins, and realizes more than ever before that many immigrants are simply incapable of severing ties with their pasts. Meanwhile, Hamilton's deep understanding of L.A. makes that city come alive in ways that even Raymond Chandler, with his more constrained understanding of the town's racial and cultural complexity, could probably not have achieved. (It's fitting, then, that Denise Hamilton should also have been tapped by publisher Akashic Books to edit an anthology of Los Angeles Noir, due out next spring.)

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While Diamond digs into the doings of bygone eras, Naomi Hirahara's Masao "Mas" Arai would like nothing better than to forget the past and move on with his life. Though born in America, Mas was reared in Japan and, after surviving the atomic devastation of Hiroshima during World War II, he's lived most of his adult life in Los Angeles. The now 70-something Japanese gardener -- and ever-reluctant sleuth -- has endured his share of cultural displacements. But, unlike his emotional and estranged daughter, Mari (who was the focus of Hirahara's 2005 novel, Gasa-Gasa Girl), he has created a stable life for himself, placidly tending the greenery of L.A.'s deep-pocketed residents.

In Snakeskin Shamisen, though, Mas is once again forced to abandon his settled ways and participate in an investigation -- this one concerning crimes that have ensnared generations.

Mas is too old to escape his Japanese roots, and too compassionate to avoid having the traditions of his upbringing bite him in the ass now and then. If it wasn't for osewaninatta -- I am in your debt, a Japanese custom of repaying favors -- Mas would not have felt obligated, as he does in Snakeskin Shamisen, to help celebrate the good fortune of Randy Yamashiro, who's just won the Spam Slot Machine Sweepstakes. (Randy's good friend is an attorney who aided Mas when his daughter experienced legal problems, in Gasa-Gasa Girl). As it is, the elderly Mas finds himself chowing down on his beloved Spam in one of L.A.'s Hawaii-themed restaurants, going along with Yamashiro's party as best he can. But things turn even sourer for him, when at the end of the evening, Yamashiro is murdered and the local cops identify Mas' friend, George Iwao "G.I." Hasuike, as a suspect in the crime. With osewaninatta again weighing heavily upon him, Mas joins G.I.'s private-eye girlfriend in investigating Randy's slaying, the only clue being a snakeskin shamisen left by his body. The Japanese banjo-like instrument has Mas wondering whether the killer could have been one of the Okinawan musicians who entertained at the party.

While Mas endeavors to sort out what role that valuable shamisen might have played in the homicide, readers are treated to an expansive, yet never tedious exploration of Japanese and Okinawan history. Disturbingly, Mas learns how the U.S. government probed and prosecuted its suspected enemies, and he's soon up to his neck in federal agents and World War II veterans (who all seem to have connections to a murder that occurred stateside during the 1940s internment of Japanese Americans. Considering the amount of suspicion and paranoia that raged during this period, it's no wonder that the end result was more death.) What's most fascinating to realize in reading these pages is how the Japanese have in fact attempted to move on from the war crimes of more than a half century ago; yet it's the Americans who often refuse to forget -- or forgive -- atrocities committed during that era of violence and death.

As she did in Gasa-Gasa Girl and its 2003 predecessor, Summer of the Big Bachi, former journalist Naomi Hirahara crafts, in Snakeskin Shamisen, a compelling, satisfying mystery that reveals often unknown information about the Japanese culture, including the virtual kidnapping and displacement of Okinawan workers from Peru to Texas by the Peruvian government. Mas Arai also shines here as an eminently likable character forced into the investigator role and, despite his reservations, admirably living up to the task. An added benefit is his attraction in Snakeskin to a Japanese-Peruvian professor who, in addition to assisting him, reminds him oddly of his late wife.

Particularly tasty offerings in this third Mas Arai escapade are the descriptions of edible treats unique to the Japanese Hawaiians, from Spam musubi to Kailua pork to loco moco breakfasts of rice, eggs, hamburger patty, and gravy. Trust me: these are staples of the modern Hawaiian diet, and they help establish the story's backdrop as familiar, yet enchantingly foreign, a canvas on which Hirahara can create the unexpected.

About the only thing we can expect, is that Hirahara will be serving up another helping of Mas at some time in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile, though, her Web site reports that she's working on "1001 Cranes, a novel on the rite of marriage in the Japanese American community in the 1980s." A departure from her series, yes, but likely to be as culturally intriguing as her first three mysteries have been. | August 2006


Cindy Chow is a librarian at Kaneohe Public Library, located on the Windward side of Oahu, Hawaii. She also reviews books for The No Name Café site.