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.
- Edgar Awards (Edgar Allan Poe Awards)
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. (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 24, 2006
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Excerpt from Snakeskin Shamisen by Naomi Hirahara
Mas Arai didn't think much of slot machines, not to mention one with a fake can of Spam mounted on top of it. Mas was a poker and blackjack man, and he had been for most of his seventy-odd years. Slots were for suckers. For heavy hakujin women in oversized T-shirts and silly earrings. And as far as he was concerned, Spam was strictly for eating--a fat, shimmering slice resting on a rectangle of sticky rice and tied together with a band of nori, dried seaweed. That's how most of the Japanese he knew in L.A. ate it.
His late wife, Chizuko, hadn't been a fan. She was straight from Japan, while Mas had bounced back and forth from row crops in his native California to the rice fields of Hiroshima. Chizuko had disapproved of Spam, and instead attempted to push natto--fermented soybeans, sticky as melted glue and rancid smelling as a baby's behind--onto their unsuspecting neighbors. Only Mrs. Jones, a large black woman with a middle as wide as one of the tires on Mas's Ford gardening truck, had taken up Chizuko's offer. After she'd opened her mouth wide, placing the web of natto on her tongue and swallowing the sticky and stinky beans, Mas had half-expected her to rise from their kitchen table and head for the bathroom. But instead she'd smiled sweetly as if holding on to a secret. "Like okra," she'd said. "Only chewier."
Mas was more of a Spam man, with some limits, of course. Spam was perfectly acceptable at potlucks of the Americanized Japanese, in particular the second generation, the Nisei, and their children, the Sansei. Mas could live with Spam being served at the coffee shop of the California Club, a favorite casino choice of Nisei families, Hawaii-born gamblers, and gardeners like Mas. Hell, he would be first in line to order Spam, eggs, and rice for breakfast or a couple of Spam sushi, referred to as Spam musubi, as a midnight snack. But once he left the confines of the coffee shop, he just wanted to fix his eyes on the clean surface of green felt tables.
Yet to get to those dollar blackjack and poker games, Mas always had to make his way through rows of slot machines. In recent years, it had only gotten worse. Instead of the standard slots, with cherries and 7s, these new machines joined the video age and took their themes from old television and game shows. Others looked more like children's games, with jumping frogs and Chinese takeout boxes and silly cartoon sounds. Too much noise. Mas just gritted down on his dentures and shook his head as he passed by.
But when he first laid eyes on a Spam slot machine, he knew that the gaming industry had gone one step too far. First it was that ridiculous lit-up giant Spam can positioned on top of the machine like an askew crown. Then there were the multiple video images of people eating and serving Spam, and then Spam itself. What did any of that have to do with gambling?