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Naomi Hirahara’s Murder on Bamboo Lane

Devoted readers of the Naomi Hirahara’s mystery novels might be dismayed to learn that her recently published book, Murder on Bamboo Lane, is not another installation of the Mas Arai series. However, despite their fondness for their beloved curmudgeon and reluctant detective, readers will find themselves quickly won over by Ellie Rush, the heroine of Murder on Bamboo Lane. Fear not, faithful readers. Naomi Hirahara’s latest book will satisfy the inner detective in all of you.

The protagonist of Murder on Bamboo Lane is Ellie Rush, a new recruit on the Central Division’s Bicycle Coordination Unit. Her mother is Japanese American; her father is white; and both are not particularly crazy about Ellie’s career choice of law enforcement. Her aunt is Assistant Chief Cheryl Toma, the highest-ranking Asian American in the Los Angeles Police Department, a little known fact among her colleagues.

When the murdered body of Jenny Nguyen, one of her classmates from Pan Pacific West College, is found on Bamboo Lane during the Golden Dragon Parade in Chinatown, Ellie’s life becomes, well, complicated. When her ex-boyfriend, two closest friends, and a handsome detective all become involved in the case, Ellie is pulled in every possible emotional direction, leaving her to trust no one except her Chihuahua-mix Shippo and her 1969 Buick Skylark.

Asked about writing from a female point of view after years of living in the mind of Mas Arai, Naomi Hirahara responds with her usual candor—a balance of the vulnerability and strength of her characters. “Although in the past I entertained the thought of writing a different mystery series—perhaps even from a Nisei women’s POV, nothing really gelled until 2012.

“My father, who was the inspiration behind Mas Arai, passed away from stomach cancer in January 2012. It was quite devastating for our small nuclear family as you can imagine. But in the course of his illness, we had moments of lightness and fun. Feasting on garlic lobster from a nearby Chinese eatery in between chemotherapy treatments. Going to a family reunion in the Watsonville area. Taking him fishing, as we had countless times before during my childhood, in nearby Ventura. Going to the hot springs near Avila Beach.

“During the time of loss, I felt that I needed something buoyant in my creative life. Youthful. Inspired by a class that I taught at UCLA as well as a law enforcement educational workshop that I took at the end of 2011, I began to envision a protagonist in her twenties. Fresh out of college and grappling with her future. Optimistic yet scared, brazen yet insecure. In other words, someone like me at that age.

“I’m not quite sure why, but I had been wrestling with a female voice in writing for a while. The creation of my middle-grade book, 1001 Cranes, as well as noir short stories certainly helped in getting the rhythm of a female characters’ internal voice. I believe as a journalist, I spent a lot of time interviewing men in our community. Also, I was very close to my father, so these two experiences gave me a lot of freedom in writing from a male voice. Women, on the other hand, have to worry a lot about what other people think of them. Our society and our community are not that accepting of women who cross acceptable lines. In a strange way, the death of my father released me to embrace my female voice, so I did so in Ellie Rush.”

Like the detectives she creates, Naomi Hirahara is an astute observer and researcher, and she meticulously integrates factual details into her fictional plots. In Murder on Bamboo Lane, readers will recognize descriptions of downtown Los Angeles and will come to more fully appreciate the character of the city.

Explaining her intimate knowledge of Los Angeles, the author says, “Most, if not all, came from my passion, interest, and curiosity of the city of my work and community. My ties to downtown LA date back to when my family shopped and dined in Little Tokyo on a regular basis. Besides The Rafu Shimpo, I’ve worked at the Biltmore Hotel and in a law office on Flower Street as well as did projects for organizations based in Toytown and the Flower Market. So it’s an area that I know very well over the years.”

In addition to the details of the Los Angeles setting, the focus on Vietnamese politics, history, and culture further deepens the realism of the plot. This shift, away from Japanese American culture, is another interesting departure for the author. Hirahara’s experience as a journalist gave her a solid foundation for these details.

She explained, “When I worked at The Rafu Shimpo, I was on the board of the Asian American Journalists Association, Los Angeles chapter. I always thought that the other ethnic newspapers—Korea Times, LA Sentinel, Ngoi Viet, etc.—had common goals and challenges. We visited each other newspapers and that’s when my knowledge grew in other ethnic communities.

“I was compiling a reference book on Asian American Business Leaders and in the course of including a Vietnamese American newspaper publisher, I became more aware of the tension within the Vietnamese immigrant communities regarding past politics in Vietnam. Since we in the Japanese American community don’t have these kinds of controversies since so many of our population are fourth generation and quite separate from politics in Japan, I found this aspect fascinating.”

Always connected to her readers, Naomi Hirahara has been hearing from both new fans of Ellie Rush and devoted fans of Mas Arai. “I’ve been getting e-mails and letters of people who tell me, ‘Don’t forget about Mas.’ But I’ve also heard from people who actually relate to Ellie more than Mas! Some people gravitate or relate to an elderly cranky man, while for others, such a character gets under their skin—and not in a good way.”

All of her readers will be happy to hear that there will be more to come for both characters. At least one more Ellie Rush book, A Grave on Grand Avenue, is scheduled for publication in April 2015. According to the author, “it will center on a Chinese superstar cellist who performs at Walt Disney Concert Hall.” Hirahara adds, “I’m hoping for at least a third Ellie Rush book—that one will take place in Little Tokyo. Fingers crossed!” As for Mas Arai fans, “there will be two final books on their way. The sixth one, which will be set at Dodger Stadium and involve the world of international baseball, will most likely be out in 2016.”

And, as if Ellie Rush and Mas Arai aren’t enough to keep her busy, Naomi Hirahara has a number of other projects in the works. She just completed a book with Geraldine Knatz on the lost communities of Terminal Island which she hopes will be published sometime early next year.

She is currently attempting to complete another middle-grade book which is in the “steampunk” genre. Particularly exciting is a regular monthly mystery serial she will be writing for Discover Nikkei this summer. It will involve a Sansei middle-aged detective who finds himself attempting to solve crimes in his new base of operations, Little Tokyo. These projects guarantee to keep Naomi Hirahara’s faithful readers happy—and to win over new readers who are looking for ways to put their mystery-solving skills to work!

Naomi Hirahara (Photo by Mario Gershom Reyes)


© 2014 Japanese American National Museum

author book Murder on Bamboo Lane mystery naomi hirahara