Since the appearance of “Summer of the Big Bachi” in 2004, Naomi Hirahara has produced five mystery novels in the ethnic detective genre, featuring Masao Arai, an elderly Japanese-American gardener (and Hiroshima A-bomb survivor) who drives around greater Los Angeles in a beat-up pickup truck.
While the “Mas” Arai series has earned praise for its well-developed portrayals of the Japanese-American community, the detective has been getting on in years, so Hirahara has wisely made the shift to a new protagonist who, in addition to being young and female, reflects the city’s ethnic diversity.
Rookie police officer Ellie Rush, who is assigned to the LAPD bicycle patrol — now that’s got to be some kind of first for the police procedural genre — is the daughter of a Caucasian father and Okinawan-American mother. Ellie’s aunt, Cheryl Toma, also happens to be the assistant chief of police.
In “Murder on Bamboo Lane,” an ethnic Vietnamese woman named Jenny Nguyen is found slain in Chinatown, and it just so happens that Ellie knew the victim from their college days. This previous relationship is enough to get Ellie temporarily relieved from writing parking citations to assisting in a homicide investigation. Having a relative high up in the police organization, however, is problematic since the last thing Ellie wants is to be seen as having risen through the ranks through her family connections.
Along with being a well-constructed whodunit, Hirahara’s latest work introduces an appealing and original heroine who guides readers to the rich ethnic mix of contemporary Los Angeles.