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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #46 (November 14, 2006), page 16.
Mas Arai returns in Hiraharaís cozy thriller
Snakeskin Shamisen: A Mas Arai Mystery
By Naomi Hirahara
Paperback, 255 pages, $12.00
By Jeff Wenger
Snakeskin Shamisen is the third Mas Arai mystery by Naomi Hirahara. It is a pleasant diversion, a quick trip through exotic lands inhabited by colorful characters. We donít travel far, just to Southern California. The people are mainly the Japanese community there ó the Nisei and Sansei and Japanese Americans and Peruvian Okinanawan Americans who eat Spam and speak an amalgamated tongue and turn out to be (wonder of wonders) a lot like everybody else.
Thankfully, we have a writer as gifted as Hirahara, whoís lived it and absorbed it and breathed it and then breathes it into the reader. She must have paid attention when the old folks were telling stories.
Mas Arai is curmudgeonly. He is grumpy and unwilling to tolerate nonsense. I wondered if he would yell in traffic or kick a pet, but Mas is really a loveable old guy and the result of placing him in a murder mystery is delightful. He drives a í56 Ford truck that he locks with a screwdriver. Itís believable because he can fix it and its practical; he still works as a gardener though heís 72 years old. Mas misses his dead wife and is filled with regrets and longing for his daughter, who lives in New York with her family. Indeed, Snakeskin Shamisen is laced through with bittersweet reflections on family.
The quickly dispatched victim is Randy Yamashiro, a friend of a friend, and Mas is near at hand on the fateful night and is drawn irresistibly and believably into events. The shamisen of the title is "a Japanese instrument shaped like a banjo, the kind that geisha and old men in kimono plucked while sitting on their knees." The Okinawan word for the instrument is sanshin.
Hirahara mixes in relevant cultural insights and sparkling metaphor and dialect that seems funny until you recognize how perfect is its pitch. It is this that elevates Snakeskin Shamisen above the cozy murder mystery genre. There can be little doubt that Hirahara is a very fine writer who works in this particular milieu for the best of reasons: she wants to. Itís fun.
You donít expect Snakeskin Shamisen, being cozy, to have any sense of real menace, and indeed, there isnít. You donít fear for Mas or any of the principals any more than you would for Jessica Fletcher or Quincy, M.D. But itís good clean fun, like watching frumpy Columbo on TV.
In the end itís Mas Arai, and the peripheral world through which he schleps, that hold the reader rapt. Itís fun to imagine an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance. It is fun to watch the plot thicken and to guess what will happen next. And itís fun to join with the old immigrants who drink beer in the back of the lawn mower shop, the guys who dress shabbily but who give generously when one of their own is in need.
It is a pleasant and creditable view of the world and weíre fortunate to have a writer of Hiraharaís skill to remind us that itís there.