Three Asian Angeleño Mysteries

James Sherman, Librarian, Literature & Fiction Department,
Book covers

In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, why not read a mystery? Try these three great mystery writers of Asian Angeleño heritage who plot intriguing yarns and use the settings of Los Angeles as a background as well as a point of departure.

Dale Furutani

Death in Little Tokyo by Dale Furutani

In this award-winning book, computer programmer and mystery lover Ken Tanaka leases space in Little Tokyo and decorates it like a detective's office in order to host a gathering of his Mystery Club. When a woman comes in to hire him, he goes along, believing her to be a Club participant playing a joke. In best Hitchcockian style, Ken gets drawn first into a mystery and then into a murder for which Ken is considered a suspect. Ken’s love of mysteries draws him deeper and deeper into the fray. On his website, Dale Furutani quotes a former Curator of the Japanese American National Museum, Brian Niiya, who notes that in Death in Little Tokyo, “In the course of spinning this entertaining story, Furutani brings the reader into the Japanese American community of the 1990s, a community dealing with cultural negotiation, identity conflicts, and echoes of concentration camps.”

Dale Furutani was raised in San Pedro, California. He has a degree in Creative Writing From CSU Long Beach, where he wrote poetry and plays, and an MBA from UCLA. Before he wrote mysteries, Dale Furutani had written 250 articles and three nonfiction books about computers, and Death in Little Tokyo was his first novel, written when he was fifty. It won an Anthony Award for Best First Novel, Macavity Awards for Best First Mystery Novel, and a nomination for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel.

In 1998 Furutani wrote the second and last mystery in the Ken Tanaka series, The Toyotomi Blades, then launched a second mystery series, set in 1603 Japan and featuring a ronin (masterless samurai) named Matsuyama Kaze as the detective. The first book in that series is Death at the Crossroads.

Naomi Hirahara

Summer of the Big Bachi by Naomi Hirahara

In Altadena, Mas Arai is just another elderly Japanese-American gardener, leading a simple life after the death of his wife, and more and more concerned with the past, when bachi—the spirit of retribution—arrives in the form of a stranger asking about another Japanese American nurseryman, named Haneda. Presently, Haneda turns up dead and Mas fears for his own life. In trying to find out who is responsible, Mas has to look into his own past, about past friends and powerful secrets, and about what happened when he was in Hiroshima when the bomb fell. 

The character of Mas Arai is based on author Naomi Hirahara’s father, an American of Japanese ancestry who, with his wife, was also a hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivor. After the war, they returned to Southern California, yet even with a UCLA degree, the only job he, and many other Japanese-American men, could get was working as a gardener. Hirahara honors her father with the unforgettable character of Mas Arai and won an Edgar award for Snakeskin Shamisen (2007).

Naomi Hirahara was born in Pasadena, California, and attended Stanford, then studied at the Inter-University Center for Advanced Japanese Language Studies in Tokyo. She was a reporter and editor of The Rafu Shimpo during the culmination of the redress and reparations movement for Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from their homes during World War II.

Hirahara’s new series involves a young female protagonist, Ellie Rush, who is an LAPD bicycle officer who dreams of being a homicide cop. The first book in that series is Murder on Bamboo Lane.

Steph Cha

Follow Her Home by Steph Cha

In this series, a modern day Raymond Chandler fan jumps at a chance to be a detective, but things get real, really fast. Juniper Song has long loved mysteries—Chandler detective Philip Marlowe has always been her literary idol. “So when her friend Luke asks her to investigate a possible affair between his father and a young employee, Juniper (or 'Song' as her friends call her) finds an opportunity to play detective. Driving through L.A.'s side streets, following leads, tailing suspects—it all appeals to Song's romantic ideal of the noir hero. But when she's knocked out while investigating a mysterious car and finds a body in her own trunk, Song lurches back to the real L.A., becoming embroiled in a crime that goes far beyond role play. What's more, this isn't the first time Song has stuck her nose in other people's business. As she fights to discover the truth about her friend's family, Song reveals one of her own deeply hidden secrets, something dark and damaging, urging her to see the current mystery through, to rectify the mistakes of her past life.”

Like her fictional alter-ego Juniper Song, Korean-American author Steph Cha is a long-time Chandler fan, drawn to the noirish mysteries set in her native Los Angeles. She was raised in Encino, and even though she received her law degree from Yale, writing was always her first interest, and noted that “while I don't feel that removed from the American mainstream, I found it strange and discomforting that my community was more or less ignored in literature”. Cha set about correcting that situation with the publication of Follow Her Home in 2013. With her series featuring young yet worldly wise detective Juniper Song, Cha is broadening the genre of hardboiled mysteries, from both a Korean Angeleño and a female perspective. While Cha is also a fan of Didion and Ellroy, her love of Chandler is apparent, and her novels are a song of tribute to Los Angeles Noir.