Mas Arai: An Unlikely Hero Solves L.A.'s Mysteries The protagonist of Naomi Hirahara's novels isn't a seasoned police detective or a private investigator — he's a gruff, 72-year-old gardener who lives in the hills above Pasadena, Calif. The Mas Arai character was inspired by Hirahara's father and guides readers into the hidden corners of L.A.'s Japanese-American communities.

Mas Arai: An Unlikely Hero Solves L.A.'s Mysteries

Mas Arai: An Unlikely Hero Solves L.A.'s Mysteries

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Los Angeles is the setting for Naomi Hirahara's Mas Arai series, in which a gruff, mystery-solving, 72-year-old gardener guides readers into the hidden corners of L.A.'s Japanese-American communities. Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Mystery literature is full of interesting, oddball characters, but few are so original as amateur investigator Mas Arai, the protagonist in Naomi Hirahara's series set in and around Los Angeles. An American of Japanese ancestry, Mas journeyed to Japan as a teen to spend a couple of years to cement cultural ties to his parents' homeland. Their hometown was Hiroshima, and he happened to have been there on Aug. 6, 1945.

"It was really important for me for Mas to have the experience of being a hibakusha, or atomic bomb survivor -- but an American-born hibakusha," says Hirahara, who is a former reporter and editor for The Rafu Shimpo, a Japanese-language Los Angeles daily. She says Mas Arai's unique status was inspired by her own family history: both of her parents were in Hiroshima when the pikadon -- "bomb of light" -- was dropped. Her mother, Mayumi, lived in the countryside, but her father was only a few miles from ground zero. Hirahara believes his after-school job at the Hiroshima train station saved Isamu Hirahara's life.

In addition to the four Mas Arai mysteries, Hirahara is also the author of 1001 Cranes. You can follow her on Twitter: @gasagasagirl. Delacorte Books hide caption

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Delacorte Books

In addition to the four Mas Arai mysteries, Hirahara is also the author of 1001 Cranes. You can follow her on Twitter: @gasagasagirl.

Delacorte Books

"He happened to be in the basement," she explains. "He says he saw a flash, then the rubble. Then he was knocked unconscious." When Isamu Hirahara came to, "he climbed up the rubble, and he said everything was just ... on fire."

Eventually, Isamu returned to the U.S., settled in the hills above Pasadena, and began his own business: tending the gardens of the comfortably well-off white people in the Los Angeles suburbs. The hostility toward Japanese -- including Japanese-Americans -- made it hard for many to find jobs, regardless of their education or background. Hirahara wanted to reflect that struggle in her books.

"You have a degree from UCLA [but] you don't have a job because you're a Jap?" she says crisply. "Well, OK, get a beat-up lawnmower, a pickup truck and go to work and you can have as many clients as you want."

That, she says, is why there were so many Japanese gardeners, including her father, in Southern California from the late 40s until about 15 years ago. (Now Latino gardeners have made the trade their entry into the American job market.) Hirahara says it wasn't until she was older that she understood the sacrifice her father made by soldiering on to provide for his family. So she modeled Mas Arai after him, as a thank you -- and as an apology.

"I'm basically making a character like my father a hero," Hirahara admits. "I think all the times I complained that my dad was a gardener and we couldn't afford this trip or that trip, I'm trying to make up for it by creating this heroic, iconic figure that's underestimated."

Those in power and/or authority tend to underestimate Mas: He's little, brown and wizened from his years in the Southern California sun. His English is mangled. ("I dunno youzu gonna be here" is how he greets a university professor he runs into unexpectedly.) He's usually in worn jeans, sneakers and an ancient baseball cap that proclaims fealty to his beloved Dodgers. Busy people who are always looking over their shoulders for someone more important to talk to overlook him completely -- which turns out to be to Mas' advantage, because it allows him to slip into crime scenes unnoticed, observe and slip away again.

Read Excerpts From Hirahara's Mas Arai Mystery Series:

So far, Mas has solved crimes in four books. We meet him in Summer of the Big Bachi, Hirahara's maiden effort, in which a murder in Pasadena forces Mas to confront the trauma of his Hiroshima past. In Gasa Gasa Girl, Mas' almost-estranged daughter needs him to clear her name -- and his tall blond son-in-law's -- when they're accused of murdering their boss. The third book, Snakeskin Shamishen, has Mas trying to discover who killed the winner of a half-million-dollar lottery ticket, while he races against the clock to keep his lawyer alive. And in Hirahara's most recent book, Blood Hina, an expensive antique doll (or hina) goes missing just as Mas' best friend, Haruo, is about to marry his longtime fiancee, making Haruo a suspect -- and making Mas his champion.

Hirahara's books have garnered her an enthusiastic following here in the U.S., and a few years ago they began being released in Japan. She says after some initial skepticism, her father has enjoyed being immortalized in fiction.

"He loves being the center of these mysteries," Hirahara says with a chuckle. But she has to remind him: "Hey Dad, you don't really solve crimes. There's still a fictional Mas Arai out there!"

As to where Mas might show up next, Hirahara is guarded:

"All I can say is, the next one involves baseball."

That's something that would probably get a grunt of approval from Mas Arai.

Excerpt: 'Summer Of The Big Bachi'

Summer of the Big Bachi
Summer Of The Big Bachi
By Naomi Hirahira
Paperback, 287 pages
Random House
List price: $13

JUNE 1999

Tanaka's Lawnmower Shop was where it all started, at least this time around. Buried in a town called Altadena at the base of the purple San Gabriel Mountains, it was the closest thing to home for Mas Arai. When Mas was younger and his hair jet-black, he spent most of his nights after his gardening route in the shop's back room. They cleared the worktables of screws, pliers, and invoices and got out a case of plastic poker chips in red, yellow, blue, and green. Wishbone Tanaka would plunk down a new pack of playing cards, a sticker still keeping the virgin lid in place. Someone would toss in a bag of red-dyed pistachios; after a night of cards, everyone's fingertips would be pink and salty.

Even after he got married and his daughter, Mari, was born, Mas continued these late-night outings. Most of the guys were still single, or had wives who didn't care, but Chizuko called every night. When Mari was old enough to say "Dad-dy," she was the one who was on the other side of the line. Then Chizuko was pregnant again, and Mas thought twice about gambling at Tanaka's. "One day it's all going to catch up with you," Chizuko shrieked. "You going to get big bachi."

One late weekend night the bachi did come. Mari kept calling and calling. Mas refused to take the phone, because he didn't want his successful run to be ruined.

"I got me six hundred dolla," he announced, stumbling into the bedroom that night.

"I don't feel so good, Masao-san," Chizuko moaned.

Mas flipped on the light. Chizuko's permed hair was damp against her forehead. He turned over the flowered bedspread and cotton sheets to reveal Chizuko's plump belly extending over her tight panties. Next to her was a spot of blood, fresh and dark.

"I called you, Daddy." Mari, dressed in a flannel nightgown, stood in the doorway. "I kept calling and calling."

After Chizuko's miscarriage, Mas stopped playing cards. Chizuko kept her nagging, but it took on another tone. The words were the same, but all their power was gone. It continued like this for twenty more years, two decades filled with one bachi after another. In the end, he was the only one left in their three-bedroom house at the bottom of the San Gabriels, the purple peaks now barely visible due to the smog. Even their mutt dog was gone.

But it seemed to always work out this way for Mas. He was the ultimate survivor, whether he liked it or not. It was a distinction that Mas hated and lately had begun to test. He resumed hanging out at Tanaka's, first just once a month, then once a week. Within a year, his Ford truck was on automatic. After Mas finished his gardening route at noon, he headed for Fair Oaks Boulevard, which pushed up into tiny streets like the thin veins that traced his brown fingers. While the main town, Pasadena, was full of wide boulevards and fancy streetlights, Altadena, to the north, was scrawny like a chicken that didn't get enough feed. It had a slight wildness to it -- hardly any sidewalks -- as if the town weren't even worth taming. Mas liked it that way.

Tanaka's Lawnmower Shop was a small shack between an abandoned gas station and a discount grocery store that used to be a chain called Market Basket. In any other city around Los Angeles, Tanaka's would be long gone. The advent of huge home building supply stores meant survival of the fittest. And Tanaka's was anything but fit.

It was the beginning of summer and hotter than hell. Wishbone's air-conditioning had broken down, and the door to the shop was wide open. A few flies circled the heads of the men whose graying hair was slicked back with Three Flowers oil.

Wishbone was behind the counter, like usual. Wishbone's real name, given by his immigrant parents from Kumamoto Prefecture, was Wallace. Strangers who met Wishbone for the first time thought that his nickname meant that he was lucky. But it had nothing to do with luck. When he was a skinny teenager, his legs were terribly pigeon-toed, resulting in the nickname from his East L.A. classmates. At age sixty-seven, the name still stuck.

He and three others were talking about the gardeners' association meeting the night before. "Hardly anyone there, ne," said one of the guys, a gardener in San Gabriel. "A lot of fines to be paid."

"Took just about thirty minutes, datsu all. Was even home for the horse race broadcast," said Stinky Yoshimoto, also a gardener who lived in Pasadena.

Mas, at first, didn't notice the man standing in the corner by the loops of garden hoses. He was quiet, and it was his silence that attracted attention. He was in his fifties, younger than the usual crowd. He wore a tan turtleneck, even though it was ninety-eight degrees outside, and a pair of tinted glasses with golden tips. Must be straight from Japan, Mas had thought, studying the man's flat, manicured fingernails. Definitely no gardener.

"You not at the meeting last night, Mas." Stinky held on to the handle of a lawn mower on display.The man in the tinted glasses and the two gardeners stared at Mas as if they had just noticed him in the doorway. He fumbled with a button on his khaki shirt and adjusted his Dodgers cap.

"Mas don't go to meetings. He's not that kind of guy." Wishbone grinned, wrinkles covering his face like a Mojave lizard's.

Mas bit into an old toothpick he had found in his jeans pocket. The guys always made a big deal about the gardeners' association meetings. But what was it, really? A bunch of old guys in folding chairs, listening to speeches on the latest drought or blower ban. The heyday of the Japanese gardener had passed them by years ago. Once, there had been hundreds of them on the front lawns of practically all Southern California homes and businesses. Now they were replaced by their former helpers, the Mexicans, with shiny new trucks, eager family members, and cut-rate prices.

"We were just tellin' this fella -- what your name again?" The gardener from San Gabriel turned to the stranger.

"Nakane." The man squeezed the right tip of his eyeglasses.

"Yah, Nakane-san, yah, tellin' him that we saw Haneda last night."

The toothpick broke in Mas's mouth. His heart pounded, and blood pulsed through his head.

"You know Haneda Joji?" the stranger asked in Japanese. His tinted glasses had turned a shade or two lighter in the dark shed, and his heavy eyelashes fluttered.

"Yah, he knowsu Haneda." Stinky's eyes were bloodshot and milky yellow like a stirred raw egg. "Knowsu each other back in, what, Wakayama?"

"Hiroshima," Mas corrected Stinky.

"Oh, yah, that's right. Hi-RO-shima."

"Longtime friends," Nakane stated, more than questioned.

"No, I neva say friends." Mas chewed on the broken toothpick until it splintered into even smaller pieces. What kind of stranger comes around and makes noise like this?

"Shitsurei," Nakane apologized. "Don't take offense. I'm just looking for him."

"Heezu right ova there, in Ventura," said Stinky.

"Yah," the gardener from San Gabriel interjected, "got a fancy nursery right there by the ocean. 'The beach clean there,' he say. 'Best sashimi in California. Better than the ones down here, any day.'"

"That's the thing." Wishbone smoothed a dollar bill on his wooden counter. "He's not in Ventura anymore."

"Oh, yah?" Stinky looked greedily at Wishbone. Wishbone was the king of local gossip, which seemed to sell better than his lawn mowers.

"He left his wife and his kids, although they all are pretty much grown now. They say he's with a mistress down here in North Hollywood."

North Hollywood? Mas felt like spitting the tiny splinters of toothpick onto Wishbone's floor. While it took at least an hour and a half to drive to Ventura, North Hollywood was only twenty miles away.

"Happen to know her name?" Nakane's eyes looked shiny and bright, but Mas couldn't tell if it was just the reflection off of his glasses.

"No." Wishbone's smile diminished slightly. "Just know that she's younger."

Atarimae, thought Mas. That much they all could figure out.

Another gardener walked into the steamy shed, and the conversation switched from Haneda to gossip about a Japanese mechanic whose son had been arrested for drug dealing. The turtlenecked man retreated into the back storage area, and Mas remained with the others. It was only a matter of time before the man in the tinted glasses made his way toward Mas. "So, you know where Joji-san is?"

"Why you wanna knowsu?" The man spoke as if he were straight from Japan, and Mas was suspicious. He smelled like high-tone cologne, not the familiar scent of Old Spice that Mas splashed on special for a funeral.

The man bent his head. "I'm working in conjunction with the government. Trying to restore some lost records. We thought that Joji Haneda died in 1945, August. But here's one, right here in Southern California."

Mas tossed the chewed toothpick on the floor. "Lotsu of Jojis, I betsu. A dime a dozen." Mas made sure he spoke in English. "And Haneda. Probably a load of themsu, too."

The man squeezed the tip of his glasses again. "Yes, it could be so. But they never recovered his body."

Mas almost laughed out loud. How many thousands were never found? How many were tossed in piles like charred, useless logs? "You gonna track down every dead sonafugun? You gonna be one busy man."

The man did not smile back. Instead, he flipped out a thin gold case and removed a business card. SHUJI NAKANE, INVESTIGATIONS, it read. Underneath the title was an address in Hiroshima. "You call me if you remember anything. My local pager number's on the back," Nakane said.

"Wait a minute," Mas said before Nakane left the shed. "How you knowsu a Joji Haneda in America?"

"Television," said Nakane. "On an American news program."

Mas remembered. It had been a couple of years ago in August. He had been flipping through the television channels after eating a burnt Swanson's chicken pie, and there was that ugly face, the hooked nose. He was sitting next to a hakujin man reporter, one of those generic ones with neat hair, not too good-looking, but not so bad, either. They were on the shore of a beach; must have been Ventura. "I was with two friends that morning," he said. Below him, on the screen, were the video letters JOJI HANEDA/SURVIVOR.

Mas felt sick to his stomach. "You nuts," he practically spit at the 12-inch image of video dots. It was just like him to run after attention. Couldn't he keep quiet after all these years?

"How many of them survived?" the reporter asked.

Haneda's eyes watered, like those of a trapped fish. "Only me," he said, "and one other."

Mas promptly turned off the television and smashed his hand against the fake wood console. The worn-out antenna, which he had reattached with metal telephone wire, sagged down to the floor. "Baka," Mas cursed. He couldn't believe this man could be so stupid. It would be just like him to talk after fifty years, when it felt deceptively safe. And now that recklessness had resulted in this fancy investigator nosing around.

"So, were you able to help the man out?" Wishbone had left his counter to stack some cans of snail killer on a shelf next to Mas.

Mas shook his head. "What youzu know about dis guy, anyway?"

"Just came in this morning. Never laid eyes on him before."

Strange, thought Mas. Wishbone didn't care for these white-collar types from Japan. If he had his way, none of them would be allowed into the United States, much less his Altadena lawn mower shop. Before Mas could ask any more questions, Wishbone had returned to the rest of his customers.

Standing beside the cans of snail killer, Mas studied the investigator's card. This Shuji Nakane was no government man; that was for sure. No such person would set foot in Tanaka's Lawnmower Shop. This man was used to getting down and dirty, digging in places he should not be. What would happen if he uncovered the truth about Joji Haneda?

Excerpted from Summer of the Big Bachi by Naomi Hirahira. Copyright 2004 by Naomi Hirahira. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.

Excerpt: 'Gasa-Gasa Girl'

Gasa-Gasa Girl
Gasa-Gasa Girl
By Naomi Hirahara
Paperback, 368 pages
List price: $6.99

March 2000

Mas knew that New York City wasn't for him as soon as he saw that its gardens were under lock and key. Even in the best neighborhoods in Beverly Hills or San Marino back in Southern California, lawns lay open like luxurious carpets to the edges of sidewalks, beckoning guests and the glances of envious passersby. Of course, back home there were also visual threats and warnings -- the blue and yellow Armed Response signs on metal stakes. But it was one thing to pierce grass with a sign, and quite another to put a garden behind bars.

"It's called a community garden," Tug Yamada explained. "Everyone pitches in to make it green."

They were stuck in traffic on Flatbush Avenue. Tug had picked Mas up in a white Mercury rental car, a pearl amid the black Town Cars that had circled JFK Airport. Mas could always count on Tug to help him in a pinch. But then again, Mas guessed that Tug was behind this recent turn of events. It would take an outside force -- specifically a six-foot Nisei, a second-generation Japanese American -- to push Mas's daughter, Mari, to place a call from Brooklyn to his home in Altadena.

"Community? Like Japanese ones back in Los Angeles?"

"No Japanese gardeners over here, Mas. At least no more than you can count on one hand." Tug stretched out his palm, magnifying the missing half of his forefinger, a remnant of his war injury in Europe.

This was no place for Japanese gardeners and no place for a Kibei like Mas, who was born in the U.S. but raised in Japan. Kibei – "ki" meaning "return," "bei" referring to America -- was a word made up by Japanese Americans to explain their limbo. So while America was actually home for the Kibei, many of them weren't quite comfortable with English; on the other hand, they weren't that comfortable speaking Japanese, either.

Mas was used to not belonging, but he felt an especially strong sense of displacement the minute he'd gotten on the plane. A bunch of hakujin and blacks, and a few young Chinese. There were a couple of Japanese, but they were business types who wore blue and black suits with ties and hard shoes even on the airplane. They sat in the front, behind a curtain that separated the first class from the rest of the plane, called economy but really meaning bimbo, for the passengers with no money, like Mas. Even when Mas returned to America from Hiroshima in 1947, he bought the third-class boat tickets, which turned out to be a large open room full of other teenage dreamers lying on goza, straw mats, on the bottom of the ship.

In the streets of New York, there were black and brown teenagers with the same look in their eyes. Wrapped in puffy jackets and their heads topped with knit caps, they seemed to hold their dreams casually, maybe recklessly, as if those dreams could never dry up.

"Everyone gasa-gasa ova here, huh?"

"Yeah, everyone moves around in New York, Mas. You should see where Joy lives in Manhattan. It's like rivers of people walking at night."

Tug had been in New York for a couple of weeks now before the opening of his daughter Joy's art exhibit. In Mas's eyes, Tug was the closest thing to an expert on Manhattan. "Joy live close to ova here?"

"You have to go over the Brooklyn Bridge, but it's just a short subway ride away."

"Fancy place, dis Manhattan?"

"Well, Joy lives in a postage stamp of an apartment. The water comes out all brown." Tug stroked his white beard. "And you know how I love baths, Mas."

Tug, in fact, had installed a Jacuzzi tub, his and his wife Lil's only extravagance, in their modest home just two miles east of Mas's. There was no doubt that this love for baths started when Tug was a child simmering nightly in the family furo, the huge Japanese wooden tub, on their red chili pepper farm. Mas asked a few more perfunctory questions about Joy, then cut to the chase. "So you knowsu whatsu goin' on with Mari?"

"I'd better let her and Lloyd explain."

Lloyd? Mas had barely thought of his new son-in-law. "Not the baby -- ?" Mas couldn't even say the name: Takeo Frederick Jensen. It was too long; and why had they named the child Takeo, anyhow?

Mari had sent a photo back in December of a little red monkey-faced infant with fists curled up like cooked shrimp. You couldn't tell if the baby looked more Japanese or hakujin or something in between. Mas remembered when Mari had been that small. He was almost afraid to touch her, and even Chizuko told him to keep his distance. But, in time, he got the hang of it -- support the neck, watch the soft spot on top of the head. The first and only time he gave Mari a bath, he noticed a dark-blue mark above her buttocks and thought he had done something wrong. "Masao-san, most Japanese babies have that," Chizuko said, laughing. Later Tug's wife, Lil, explained that doctors called it a Mongolian spot, which seemed like a fancy term for a temporary birthmark on a baby's behind.

Tug stopped the car at another light, and Mas noticed another one of the community gardens. This one was a triangle of green trapped next to a fancy white store that looked like it sold overpriced basketball shoes and jerseys. Mas could make out a Japanese cedar, and even some kind of makeshift pond. It was still cold in New York, a good thirty degrees lower than L.A. Were the people of New York City so hungry for trees and flowers that they had to create this spring oasis in the middle of melting snow?

Tug seemed to read Mas's mind. "Lloyd was telling me about that place. Even has a name, Teddy Bear Garden, or something like that."

Teddy bear? Kids' stuff, thought Mas.

"A developer was going to get rid of the garden, so the whole community, even Lloyd and Mari, protested. Early on, somebody had thrown a teddy bear into the area, so I guess the name stuck. You know about these community gardens, Mas. There's one across the freeway from Dodger Stadium, I think."

Tug was a die-hard Dodger fan, so it was no wonder that anything remotely involving his baseball team would stick in his mind. Mas himself recollected seeing the small clumps of flowers and vegetables against a hill right above one of the tunnels of the Pasadena Freeway. And there was another garden in Alhambra, a few towns south of Altadena, where Chinese immigrants dressed in cotton pants and sometimes straw hats tended stalks of corn and vines of cherry tomatoes. But those gardens were primarily vegetables, while these ones on Flatbush Avenue were filled with trees and flowers struggling to bloom. In L.A., everybody had pride of ownership in their personal flower gardens -- a concept that had led Mas and several thousands of other Japanese Americans to get jobs as gardeners, whether they could actually grow anything or not. Everyone assumed that Japanese had green thumbs. If only they knew the truth: that most of them starting out could hardly tell the difference between a weed and an impatiens plant. But they had caught on fast enough, making money to feed their families and send their kids to fancy schools as far away as New York.

"How long youzu gonna stay?" Mas asked.

"Well, Joy's exhibition opens in a couple of weeks. You, Mari, and Lloyd are all invited, you know. I don't know about the baby, though. I don't know what people do at art gallery openings."

Tug's daughter, Joy, had recently traded in her white coat and stethoscope for poverty and paintbrushes. It had been a bad blow, but in typical Yamada fashion, Tug had bounced back, in full support of his daughter's new career. Mas had never been much into support; at least that's what both Chizuko and Mari told him time and time again. That's why he had been surprised to hear Mari's quavering voice on the other end of the line from Brooklyn: "We're in a bit of trouble, Dad. We might need your help." Help? When had Mari ever asked for help? Mari didn't want to get into the details but told him that she and her new husband, Lloyd, were going to buy him an airplane ticket. "You'll need a driver's license to board. And don't forget a credit card, just in case," she said.

But there was one problem: Mas didn't have a credit card. He'd had one briefly, when his wife, Chizuko, was alive, but that had been about fifteen years ago. So he went to the bank, and within a week, he had his own shiny piece of plastic bearing on it his full name, MASAO ARAI.

Excerpted from Gasa-Gasa Girl by Naomi Hirahara. Copyright 2008 by Naomi Hirahara. Excerpted by permission of Dell.

Excerpt: 'Snakeskin Shamisen'

Snakeskin Shamisen
Snakeskin Shamisen
By Naomi Hirahara
Paperback, 272 pages
List price: $12

"Once we meet and talk, we are brothers and sisters."
-- Okinawan proverb

"The nail that sticks up will be hammered down."
--Japanese proverb

Chapter One

Mas Arai didn't think much of slot machines, not to mention one with a fake can of Spam mounted on top of it. Mas was a poker and blackjack man, and he had been for most of his seventy-odd years. Slots were for suckers. For heavy hakujin women in oversized T-shirts and silly earrings. And as far as he was concerned, Spam was strictly for eating -- a fat, shimmering slice resting on a rectangle of sticky rice and tied together with a band of nori, dried seaweed. That's how most of the Japanese he knew in L.A. ate it.

His late wife, Chizuko, hadn't been a fan. She was straight from Japan, while Mas had bounced back and forth from row crops in his native California to the rice fields of Hiroshima. Chizuko had disapproved of Spam, and instead attempted to push natto -- fermented soybeans, sticky as melted glue and rancid smelling as a baby's behind -- onto their unsuspecting neighbors. Only Mrs. Jones, a large black woman with a middle as wide as one of the tires on Mas's Ford gardening truck, had taken up Chizuko's offer. After she'd opened her mouth wide, placing the web of natto on her tongue and swallowing the sticky and stinky beans, Mas had half-expected her to rise from their kitchen table and head for the bathroom. But instead she'd smiled sweetly as if holding on to a secret. "Like okra," she'd said. "Only chewier."

Mas was more of a Spam man, with some limits, of course. Spam was perfectly acceptable at potlucks of the Americanized Japanese, in particular the second generation, the Nisei, and their children, the Sansei. Mas could live with Spam being served at the coffee shop of the California Club, a favorite casino choice of Nisei families, Hawaii-born gamblers, and gardeners like Mas. Hell, he would be first in line to order Spam, eggs, and rice for breakfast or a couple of Spam sushi, referred to as Spam musubi, as a midnight snack. But once he left the confines of the coffee shop, he just wanted to fix his eyes on the clean surface of green felt tables.

Yet to get to those dollar blackjack and poker games, Mas always had to make his way through rows of slot machines. In recent years, it had only gotten worse. Instead of the standard slots, with cherries and 7s, these new machines joined the video age and took their themes from old television and game shows. Others looked more like children's games, with jumping frogs and Chinese takeout boxes and silly cartoon sounds. Too much noise. Mas just gritted down on his dentures and shook his head as he passed by.

But when he first laid eyes on a Spam slot machine, he knew that the gaming industry had gone one step too far. First it was that ridiculous lit-up giant Spam can positioned on top of the machine like an askew crown. Then there were the multiple video images of people eating and serving Spam, and then Spam itself. What did any of that have to do with gambling?

Those thoughts returned to Mas as he sat in his fake leather easy chair in his own living room after a meal of rotisserie chicken from the local discount warehouse store. He was reading the L.A. Japanese daily newspaper, The Rafu Shimpo, as he did every evening, when he saw it -- a quarter-page photo of a Spam slot machine on page three. And that wasn't the worst of it: two Sansei men were clutching the slot machine as if it were a Vegas showgirl. They had leis around their necks and glassy looks on their faces. Drunk as skunks, thought Mas. He adjusted his reading glasses. One of the men in the photo, a guy with long graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, looked familiar. No, couldn't be. Mas turned on the light beside the easy chair, pounding excess dust from the lampshade. There was no doubt now; it was his best lawyer friend -- well, only lawyer friend -- G. I. Hasuike. Beside him was a thick-chested Sansei man in a tight T-shirt. He had a mustache and sideburns. He looked like any other Japanese American man of a certain era. The type to hang out in smoky bowling alleys and pool halls. In the man's left hand was a cardboard rectangle, a giant check from the casino. Mas carefully counted the zeros. Five of them, all behind a number 5.

"Sonafugun," Mas muttered. Half a million dollars. He read the caption underneath the photo. "Randy Yamashiro, left, celebrates winning $500,000 in the Spam Slot Machine Sweepstakes at the California Club casino in Las Vegas with friend George Hasuike." Mas groaned. Now every Japanese fool, every single aho, would be making their way to the California Club for a try on the Spam slot machine. Any child, or even a monkey, could stuff coins into a slot. It didn't require the guts and smarts necessary for card games. It wasn't fair and it wasn't respectable. But then again, $500,000 could buy its share of respect.

There was a brief story underneath the photo and caption:

Randy Yamashiro, a resident of Hawaii, credits George Hasuike as his "good-luck charm." Yamashiro, who is visiting the mainland from Oahu, announced that he will be holding a luncheon in Torrance, CA, in Hasuike's honor later this week. The two men were in Las Vegas for a reunion of Asian American Vietnam War veterans.

Mas knew that he should be impressed with Yamashiro's generosity, but instead it made him sick. Going to rub our noses into it, thought Mas. The last thing he would do was go to any meal paid for by a winner of a game based on a food product.

Mas's best friend, Haruo Mukai, of course, was of another opinion. Haruo, like Mas, had escaped from the ravages of the Bomb in 1945. Mas returned to America, his birthplace, physically intact, whereas Haruo had left his dead eye behind in Hiroshima. Haruo's good eye was as good as, if not better than, a pair of Mas's eyeballs; he saw things that Mas had a hard time seeing. Like their obligation to go to that luncheon. Haruo had received a personal invitation -- Mas would have, too, if he'd bothered to get an answering machine.

"We gotsu a go, Mas," Haruo insisted over the phone. It was close to eight, the time Haruo usually went to bed before working the graveyard shift at the flower market in downtown Los Angeles.

"I don't have to do nutin'," Mas replied. Sitting at home seemed like a more appealing option.

"Osewaninatta. G. I. the one who help youzu out wiz a ton of legal problems, rememba?"

Like a typical Japanese, Mas thought, Haruo would pull out that card. Osewaninatta, Japanese would say to each other. I am in your debt. You've helped me out, and I owe you, big-time.

"Get you, Mari, out of more jams than you can count," Haruo kept going.

Mari was Mas's daughter in New York City, and Mas didn't appreciate Haruo using her as part of his argument.

"Yah, yah, yah," Mas said quickly, not wanting to be reminded of past troubles. "Orai, orai."

Mas ended the call soon after that. He immediately regretted agreeing to go to the party. It was fall, a time to reassess and rescue scorched lawns and dried-out plants on his gardening route. It was a season to restrategize, not to wander twenty miles south to the coastal suburb of Torrance.

Haruo had invited Mas to go with him and his girlfriend of two years, Spoon Hayakawa. Spoon's real name was Sutama, but Mas guessed that it could have been worse -- being called "Fork," "Knife," or "Chopstick," for example. Shaped like a gourd, she had long salt-and-pepper frizzy hair, which she held back with a stretchy headband. She was also a Nisei, and being an all-American gave her an easy sense of humor. Mas and Haruo, on the other hand, were Kibei Nisei, which meant born in the U.S. but raised in Japan. This duality resulted in men and women who were either sweet or sour. Haruo was sickeningly sweet, the type to hold hands with his girlfriend even when he was pushing seventy-two. That was hard to take for Mas, the classic sour, so he declined Haruo's offer. Another invitation came from other family friends, Tug and Lil Yamada. Again, Mas passed, making up a story about needing to deliver some plants to a customer on his way to the restaurant. The last thing Mas wanted to be was a third wheel. Indeed, if he had to go, Mas would go alone.

Excerpted fromSnakeskin Shamisen by Naomi Hirahara. Copyright 2006 by Naomi Hirahara. Excerpted by permission of Delta.

Excerpt: 'Blood Hina'

Blood Hina
Blood Hina: A Mas Arai Mystery
By Naomi Hirahara
Hardcover, 240 pages
Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books
List price: $24.99

"And do you, Sutama Hayakawa, take this man to be your husband?" the minister asked, the third time that night.

Mas Arai, his hands shaking and wet, wasn't going to miss his cue again. He pulled out the simple gold band from the pocket of his windbreaker and, pressing hard, as if he had captured a sand crab from a California beach, held it toward his best friend, Haruo Mukai. And then, before it could be successfully transferred to the groom, the ring slipped from his sweaty fingers and plopped into the fishpond below them.

"Ah, oogoto!" screamed an old Japanese woman holding a clipboard and standing on a concrete walkway on the other side of the pond. "I think that koi is going to swallow it."

Before Mas could take any kind of action, Haruo's grandchildren had jumped into the pond, followed immediately by the grandchildren of Sutama, who was better known as Spoon. Fish tails of milky white and neon orange thrashed through the water in between soaked pant legs. Would Haruo's or Spoon's side of the family take the prize?

Spoon, Haruo's pear-shaped bride whose bulky sweater was no benefit to her ample oshiri, held on to the railing of the bamboo bridge, shell-shocked. Haruo, his skunk hair carefully arranged to cover the keloid scar on the left side of his face, tried to smile. "Howsu one more try, Mas?"

This wedding rehearsal was a disaster from the very start. Spoon showed up forty-five minutes late, saying her youngest daughter had taken her car without telling her, so she had to wait for another daughter to pick her up. All the grandchildren, meanwhile, had arrived, pulling at mondo grasses, terrorizing the koi, running through the bamboo, and hopping on the worn bridge. Mas could just imagine the reaction of his fellow gardeners who tended the Japanese garden in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo for close to nothing. The Gardeners' Federation was big on "volunteer" -- Mas didn't believe in it because you usually ended up losing more than you put in. And for what? A pat on the back and maybe a photo in the federation's newsletter. Mas preferred his charity be less visible, if visible at all.

As the bridge shook from all the commotion below, the minister, dressed in slacks and blue sweater, desperately held on to a stack of three lacquer bowls that were part of the san-san-kudo. Three, three, nine -- fortuitous numbers, eternal numbers. Both Haruo and Spoon had sipped from the empty bowls two times each during the rehearsal. Tomorrow the bowls would be filled with sake -- Mas wouldn't mind imbibing some rice wine right now.

Why was Haruo, at seventy-one years of age, even thinking of getting remarried? Might as well just buy two cemetery plots right next to each other and put a bow tie on one headstone and a veil on the other.

The two of them had met at the flower market, and their romance had bloomed while Mas had been answering an exceedingly rare call for help from his daughter in New York City. Perhaps if Mas had stayed in L.A., Haruo and Spoon's relationship would have never ignited. Because if anyone could put a damper on love, it would definitely be Mas.

Spoon was all right, Mas guessed. She was pretty quiet for a Nisei woman, the second generation to be in America, and when she talked, she was assari, a plain speaker who didn't bother to smooth out rough edges like those straight from Japan tended to do. Mas remembered how his late wife Chizuko could shuffle and arrange Japanese words like a master magician so that the unsuspecting wouldn't even realize that they were being rebuffed or insulted. She would have thought Haruo's remarriage was kurukuru-pa, plain-out crazy, but if she had been here at the wedding rehearsal, a perpetual smile would have been plastered on her face.

Even the men at the Eaton Nursery last week seemed mystified at Haruo's upcoming nuptials. "Why don't he just go to Vegas?" asked Stinky Yoshimoto, examining the sharp teeth of one of the metal rakes for sale. Stinky was king of bad ideas and he was fortunate that most in their circle didn't bother to listen to him. "There he could sneak in a game of pau gow and poker between the ceremony and honeymoon."

Except that Haruo was a former gambler, a recovering one, as he liked to say. Gambling fever had ruined his first marriage and he sure wasn't going to let it grab hold of his second.

"So you some kind of big shot in the wedding, I hear," Wishbone Tanaka chimed in. Wishbone, the former owner of his own lawn mower shop, was always concerned with status, even in the puddle of a world that they all inhabited. "Best man -- oshare, ne."

"Best man" did sound highfalutin. Mas had never been best at anything in his life, other than perhaps regrets. Haruo could have easily selected Tug Yamada -- a medal-laden veteran who was trusty and dependable and would never do anything like lose the bride's wedding ring to a giant fish. Or even Wishbone, who limped around with a walker, its back metal legs protected by two neon green tennis balls, would perhaps have been a better choice.

But Mas and Haruo shared something that none of those men did -- the Bomb. While the experience was written all over Haruo's scarred face, it remained hidden in Mas's heart and mind. The two men hadn't known each other in Hiroshima, but when they learned that they both had been in the city during World War Two, their connection was forever fused together. Haruo talked too much, but his overflowing words often greased Mas's disjointed emotions.

So when Haruo asked him to serve as his best man, Mas hemmed and hawed, but they both knew that Mas would eventually give in. He always did.

Haruo now must have been regretting his choice, after Mas had presented him with the ring at the wrong time two times at the rehearsal and now it might be lost forever. The children were soaked and their parents, including two of Spoon's daughters, crossed their arms, their anger ricocheting from the hubbub onto Mas.

Haruo's grandson stood up in the knee-deep water. "I got it, I got it," he said, holding up a glint of gold like a prospector with a lucky find.

"Ah, yokkata," the old woman, the wedding coordinator, said in relief. She then studied the sky, weighed down by gray. "It's going to rain tomorrow," she predicted. "That means good luck." Mas hoped the wedding coordinator was wrong. Good luck, in Mas's experience, seemed to always be followed with bad.

From Little Tokyo, the three generations of Spoon's and Haruo's families -- with Mas and a couple of others tagging along -- headed deeper into the city toward downtown Los Angeles's industrial Four Corners, where the Garment District, Produce Market, Toy Town, and the Flower Market all collided. It was amazing that so much down-and-dirty commerce happened downtown, merely blocks away from the svelte high-rises and fancy hotels. Some of the business -- at least at the produce and flower markets -- happened before the crack of dawn, when trucks and forklifts moved bunches of gladiolas and carnations, boxes of strawberries and tomatoes, in the transfer of goods that would continue onward to Des Moines, Iowa, or even foreign countries.

It was a secret world, where only nocturnal men and a few women like Spoon and her daughters dared to tread. At night, outside the aging and sometimes crumbling concrete buildings, the human residents of Skid Row, as well as rats and cockroaches, ruled the streets. Those fooled by superficial appearances might think that Four Corners L.A. was only for the impoverished. But scratch deeper and there was money to be had.

Some of these deals were forged inside nondescript diners that seemed to have been around from the beginning of time, or at least the beginning of Los Angeles. These diners had plain-Jane faces and sometimes bars on their windows, but insiders felt as drawn to their counters and tables as they did to their own mothers' kitchens.

If old-fashioned breakfasts, mounds of hotcakes, melting butter, and fat, swollen sausages were the king in this neighborhood, then chop suey, a mishmash of tastes from the Old West and Far East, had to be the queen. So it was no surprise to anyone that Haruo and Spoon's rehearsal dinner was held at one of the standard chop suey houses in the neighborhood. This particular one was even a favorite of a former manager of the city's baseball team.

Mas's own mouth was salivating as the oval plates of tomato beef, egg foo young, and crunchy chow mein were placed on the lazy susan on their table. He was sitting in between Haruo and Spoon's oldest daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed destined to droop in the same places as her mother. The daughter, Debra, seemed distracted by her teenage sons horse playing at the next round table, so Mas thankfully could ladle his chicken soup to his mouth in peace. With the plastic plates of food arriving, the boys calmed down, allowing Debra to sink her teeth into her food and also Mas.

"So, Mr. Arai, are you still working?"

Mas removed a chicken bone that was caught in between his dentures. He hated that question. Seemed like once you hit seventy, everyone expected you to be good for nothing anymore. "Yah, gotta work." Even if it just meant a handful of customers.

Debra proceeded to ask question after question -- Mas felt like he was the target of a firing squad, only here the shooter kept going even though he was dead. Did he have any children? Yah. Boy or girl? Girl. Mari. Did she live close to him? Nah, New York. East Coast? Why so far? It went on and on and on.

In desperation, Mas surveyed the table. He knew that Spoon had three daughters, the three D's. There was Debra next to him, Donna across the way, and Mas tried to remember the third D. He had run into a vanful of Spoon's girls and grandchildren at Haruo's Cracker Jack box–sized apartment in the Crenshaw District. The third daughter didn't look like the others, Mas remembered. She was skinny, but there was something else. Mas remembered that she was some kind of black sheep of the family.

Mas knew that the only way to stop Debra's prying was to aim some questions of his own. "Where's your sista?"

"Donna, she's right there." Debra gestured her fork toward the pear-shaped woman across from her.

"Nah, the otha one."

Debra's distaste for her youngest sister was apparent. "She couldn't make it."

She then bit down, even though it was apparent that nothing was in her mouth.

Mas's strategy worked, because the middle-aged woman promptly turned her attention to the person seated on her other side -- Haruo's daughter, who was as sweet and gentle as her father.

Mas felt bad, but only for a minute as he scooped another helping of the fried rice drenched in soy sauce. He remained blissfully alone with the sound of the crunching of his food until someone began clanging his water glass with his fork. Others joined in and soon all the guests were focused on Haruo and Spoon.

"Kisu, kisu," he heard someone, most likely an old gardener who had drunk too many beers, chant from a corner.

Mas covered his face with his right hand. He had already witnessed his friend kiss his fiancée on the mouth three times at the rehearsal. Did he have to be sitting right next to him when he did it again?

Haruo noticed Mas's discomfort and began to laugh when he finally caught his breath after one especially long smooch.

"Mas, youzu just wait. Your turn's comin'."

Mas knew what Haruo was getting at. Haruo had invited their professor friend, Genessee Howard, to the wedding tomorrow. Genessee was just a tomodachi, a friend. How could she be more? She was a professor at UCLA, after all. Why would any woman with a head on her shoulders want to be romantically involved with Mas? He was out of her league and Haruo was so blind with his own version of love that he couldn't see it.

Mas picked up an almond cookie from the lazy susan as Itchy Iwasaki, one of the heads of Lopez, Sing, and Iwasaki Mortuary in Lincoln Heights, approached their table. Mas wasn't quite sure why he was there -- this event was for the living (well, at least barely), not the dead -- but Mas remembered that Itchy was distantly related to Spoon through marriage.

"Good to see you at the track, Haruo." He tugged at one of his trademark enormous ears. "Haven't been there in years. No need to bet on-site with computers and everything."

"Oh, yah, good to see you, Itch." Haruo awkwardly tried to change the subject to the mortuary -- "business good, must be with all these funerals" -- but Mas's ears kept ringing. The track was off-limits to Haruo, at least according to his counselor in Little Tokyo. What was Haruo doing at the track, especially now that he was going to be a married man?

"I'm not feeling too well, Haruo," Spoon pronounced loudly, her fortune cookie, broken but not eaten, on a napkin in front of her.

Both daughters, Debra and Donna, looked across the table with concern and accusation.

"It's probably from the MSG."

"I told them no MSG."

"But you know there's always MSG."

As the two sisters argued, Mas's head started to pound. Leftovers had been scooped into take-out boxes and bagged. Only more small talk awaited. As the best man, Mas was obligated to hang around, but assisting the bride-to-be was as good an excuse as any to make his getaway. He turned to Haruo, who was holding Spoon's wrinkled hand. "I take her home," Mas said.

"You sure, Mas?"

"Yah. Get there faster if I go."

Haruo glanced over to the adjoining table of teenagers throwing chow mein noodles at each other and nodded his head. "Think you're right."

Spoon was obviously of the same mind because she nodded as Haruo whispered their plan in her ear.

The two daughters were not happy -- each vied for the right to escort Spoon home until the old woman finally had enough. "Mas is taking me home. He is alone and has no one to worry about but himself and Haruo needs to pay the bill."

With that, the daughters finally complied. Mas could have taken Spoon's words the wrong way, but she had spoken the truth, no denying it. Mas was indeed very much alone.

They walked out of the room, past the counter where crooked framed photos of Dodger baseball stars were displayed on the wall. Mas grabbed two plastic-covered toothpicks and offered one to Spoon as they left the restaurant. She shook her head and Mas led the way toward his Ford truck parked on the far corner of the gravel parking lot. Since it had been stripped after being stolen some years ago, Mas had been busy improvising. In addition to the banana peel–colored car seat from a 1970 Chevy and a dashboard from another Ford truck, he had found a side mirror from a semi in the junkyard. With help from his friend Tug, Mas was able to weld and screw on the mirror on the driver's side. It was guaranteed that no other 1956 Ford could boast such an impressive mirror. While Mas was proud of the Frankenstein surgery on his vehicle, he sadly realized in the dim light of the chop suey parking lot that others might have a different opinion.

Excerpted from Blood Hina by Naomi Hirahara. Copyright 2010 by Naomi Hirahara. Published in 2010 by Minotaur Books. Excerpted by permission of Minotaur Books.

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