RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Los Angeles has always been fertile ground for a noir mystery. And today, as we continue our Crime in the City series, we meet an author who's putting a new spin on that old genre. Naomi Hirahara grew-up near L.A., and draws upon her Japanese-American roots to create a different kind of sleuth.
NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, it's a characters she knows extremely well.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The lead character in Naomi Hirahara's novels isnt a police detective or a private investigator. He's a 72-year-old Japanese-American gardener who lives on this sun-baked street in the hills of above Pasadena. Hirahara didnt have to imagine her protagonist's modest ranch home in Altadena; she used to live in it.
Ms. NAOMI HIRAHARA (Crime Novelist): It's a very mixed neighborhood - at least when I was growing up. There's a longstanding African-American community here. And I think, in recent years, there's a growing Latino community. And there's always been, you know, pockets of Japanese-Americans, too.
BATES: Hirahara's father, Isamu, is the template for her gruff amateur investigator, Mas Arai.
Ms. HIRAHARA: Im basically making a character like my father, a hero, that's Mas's character. And I think all of the times where I complained that my dad was a gardener and we couldnt afford this trip or that trip, you know, Im trying to make up for it...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HIRAHARA: ...by making this heroic, iconic figure who's underestimated.
BATES: American-born Isamu Hirahara spent a few years in Japan as a teenager. He was there working at the Hiroshima train station on August 6th, 1945.
Ms. HIRAHARA: He happened to be in the basement, and then he says he did he does say that he saw a flash, and then the rubble. Then he was knocked unconscious. And then he kind of, you know, he climbed up the rubble, and he said everything was just on fire.
(Soundbite of a news reel)
Unidentified Man: This is Hiroshima the day after the Atom Bomb exploded over Japan's 7th largest city and X-ed its message of doom to an empire.
BATES: Like Hirahara's father, her character Mas was also in Hiroshima on that grim day and returned to the U.S. soon after, where he worked hard tending the lawns of middle-class homeowners in Greater L.A.
Although Mas was physically unharmed by the bomb, it shaped his view of the world.
Ms. HIRAHARA: It was really important for me to - for Mas to have the experience of being a hibakusha - or Atomic Bomb survivor - but being an American-born atomic bomb survivor. I wrote it from a personal motivation, more than a political one, because this is what happened, actually, on both sides of my family.
BATES: His aged, brown skin and broken English make him largely invisible to the people he meets, so Mas is able to appear and disappear at crimes scenes almost at will. He's small, quiet and very stubborn, as suspects discover when he continues turning up on their doorsteps, asking questions that expose their dismissive lies. Mas has already lived through the worst, little frightens him.
Ms. HIRAHARA: Surviving a nuclear explosion, I mean it does add new perspective. I think this kind of character values things differently than your average person. And I think that informs him and that helps him go through life, and also solve these mysteries.
BATES: And solve them, he does. And elderly lady he met describes him this way.
(Reading) He looks like nobody special but he has a head for things; smarter than he looks.
In "Gasa-Gasa Girl," Mas visits New York when his usually distant daughter, Mari, calls for help after things get weird at work. When Mari's boss turns up murdered in the Japanese garden she and her husband are helping to rebuild in Brooklyn, both become suspects. Mas solves the crime to protect his daughter and her family.
(Soundbite of a shamisen)
BATES: In "Snakeskin Shamisen," Hirahara's third book, the guest of honor is murdered at a celebration for a big lottery win. A mangled Japanese string instrument, a shamisen, is the only clue. Mas becomes involved because he doesnt think the police are taking the murder seriously.
(Soundbite of train)
BATES: Naomi Hirahara included the Los Angeles Flower Mart in her most recent novel, "Blood Hina;" once the stalls in this huge space were almost completely occupied by Japanese-American growers.
Ms. HIRAHARA: Being able to witness and being able document this type of place, it's so thrilling and thats why I wanted to weave that into my mysteries, cause I wanted other people to get a chance to know about it, to see it.
BATES: In "Blood Hina," Mas's best friend is about to do something unthinkable. At 60-something, he's decided to marry his longtime girlfriend. Hirahara placed their rehearsal dinner at a beloved creaky diner in an industrial part of town, not far from the flower market.
Ms. HIRAHARA: Here we go. Here's Paul's Kitchen, Cantonese food.
BATES: Paul's has walls stained from decades of cigarette smoke, cracked red leatherette booths and a long front counter lined with stools. No spicy Szechuan or Hunan here, Paul's offerings take you straight back to 1959 when chop suey was the rage. And it's exactly the kind of inexpensive comfort food Mas and his friends would enjoy on a night out.
Bellies full of Paul's excellent chow mein, we visit the Pasadena Japanese Cultural Institute. It has classrooms devoted to the study of Japanese culture, arts and language; and Hirahara uses it in "Gasa-Gasa Girl" to emphasize a generational divide.
Ms. HIRAHARA: Every Saturday, we had to go to Japanese language school. We couldnt be like the cool kids and, you know, watch cartoons on television or participate in slumber parties. So it was very un-cool to be learning Japanese on Saturday mornings.
BATES: Much as she hated those lessons, they had a useful dividend. Hirahara is now fluent and sprinkles lots of Japanese words throughout her books.
Ms. HIRAHARA: Im getting some younger readers who gravitate towards it, not because it features a 70-year-old man, but because there are so many Japanese words in there.
BATES: Back in her old neighborhood in Altadena, Naomi Hirahara recalls that her father wasnt an automatic fan of her stories. During the 15 years it took her to research and write her first book, "Summer of the Big Bachi," she say he had been politely skeptical until he read the Japanese edition.
Ms. HIRAHARA: I knew that I was okay with him, because after he read the Japanese, he said, Hey, this is me. You know, he said that again. And I was leaving, he followed me on the porch and he says, My friends are waiting for the next one.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HIRAHARA: So I know that was, like, the extreme endorsement.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BATES: So about that next one?
Ms. HIRAHARA: What Im thinking is there'll be three more. And the next one, all I can say is involves baseball.
BATES: Something both parts of Mas Arai, Japanese and American, would appreciate totally.
Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: You can read excerpts from all the mysteries in Naomi Hirahara's Mas Arai series and pick up a little Japanese at our Web site, NPR.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News with Steve Inskeep. Im Renee Montagne.