Naomi Hirahara on her new mystery series ... and the new L.A.

Naomi Hirahara's new mystery, "Murder on Bamboo Lane," evokes contemporary Los Angeles.
(Mario Gershom Reyes)
Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Naomi Hirahara’s seventh novel, “Murder on Bamboo Lane” (Berkley: 304 pp, $7.99 paper), is something of a departure: the kick-off of a mystery series featuring rookie bicycle cop Ellie Rush. For the last decade, Hirahara has written mysteries about Mas Arai, a Japanese American gardener based in Southern California; she won an Edgar for “Snakeskin Shanisen,” which came out in 2007. But if Mas is a throwback to a different California -- reticent, aging, with roots in the state’s tortured racial history -- Ellie is a detective of a different sort. Young and resolutely urban, she represents Los Angeles as it is, rather than as it was. The niece of a high-ranking LAPD officer, she is caught up in a number of tensions and contradictions involving her loyalty to family, friends and to herself.

Hirahara was born in Pasadena and worked as a writer and editor at the Rafu Shimpo before starting to write nonfiction books in the late 1990s. Recently, we corresponded, via email, about her latest novel, the role of L.A. in her fiction and the flexibility of mysteries as a form.

“Murder on Bamboo Lane” is the first novel in a new series. Does this mean you’re tiring of Mas Arai?

Not at all. But it is a challenge to place an amateur sleuth, especially one like Mas, in the presence of murder on a regular basis. I’ve even had to move him to places like New York City and Watsonville, but dead bodies always seem to find him. I plan on writing two more Mas Arai mysteries -- one set in Dodger Stadium and the other in Hiroshima. But I’m giving myself time to get them just right.

What are the challenges of writing two series at once?


I’m constantly thinking about various storylines for the different series or even different books within a series. For example, I’m writing the second Ellie Rush book, which will be set at Walt Disney Concert Hall. But I’m also thinking about the third, which isn’t even contracted yet. And since baseball season has started, I’m also paying attention to details I can incorporate in the next Mas. I credit my years at the Rafu Shimpo for my ability to multitask. As a journalist, especially at a small newspaper, you don’t have the luxury to think about one thing for an extended period of time.

Ellie is a young LAPD bicycle officer. Why a bicycle cop?

It’s odd, but it’s been a process for me to grab hold of a woman’s voice. Writing Mas was not that difficult. It may be because I was so close to my father or because I’m very interested in issues of war and conflict, which is often seen as more of a man’s world. Also at the newspaper we often would interview and write about men. I was the only woman in the newsroom for a short while. But as I age, I’m feeling more comfortable and actually more compelled to write from a woman’s point of view. In 2008, I wrote a middle-grade book in a 12-year-old girl’s voice and then a series of noir short stories, all female-based. That served as my creative incubation period to explore female protagonists.

Ellie came out of many things. She’s mixed race, as are most Japanese Americans her age. And she is part of law enforcement, but not as an experienced homicide detective. As a bicycle cop, she’s close to the ground and interacts with the public. I can have a concentrated area -- downtown L.A. -- as her daily beat. She’s learning as I’m learning.

“Murder on Bamboo Lane” really captures contemporary Los Angeles. Ellie lives in Highland Park and takes the Gold Line. She and her friends hang out in a ramen shop in Little Tokyo; her grandmother is a rabid UCLA basketball fan.

I love L.A. -- I’ve lived here for most of my life. I participated in promotional work for the decennial census in 2010 and my eyes were open to our changing Los Angeles. Many times, we think about certain neighborhoods -- I’ve never gone there. It’s sketchy, shady or dangerous. Unknown. But you know what, people live there. That is their home. In writing this “cozy” mystery about urban L.A., I want to give props to city dwellers. They are as emotionally invested in their homes as anyone else.

It’s very important -- and certainly more interesting -- for me to write about the types of people I see in the city. I’m an emotional writer; I think that’s what I bring to the table. Feeling. Anyway, who doesn’t love a nisei grandparent who is a die-hard Bruin fan because of John Wooden’s legacy? I don’t look at L.A. as an archetype, a holder of genre, but as a nexus of people with very different histories but similar aspirations.

How do you see the series progressing?


I’m hoping to write several books, but to have them all take place during these seminal years that Ellie works as a bike cop. I’m most interested in her emotional development, how she wrestles with her identity -- professionally, politically, romantically and ethnically. I’m definitely no expert on the LAPD, so that’s another reason to keep Ellie in her novice years.

In some sense, the novel is about people on the outside trying to make their way. Ellie is a rookie on a disregarded beat. Her friends are students, children of immigrants, suspicious of official culture -- and uneasy that Ellie has become a cop.

I’m always interested in writing about invisible people. That’s why I created a character like Mas and now Ellie and her circle. I think most mysteries featuring police officers or detectives can’t fully explore outsiders’ perceptions of law enforcement. They are the heroes in those books, and while they may be plagued with certain demons, we unabashedly root for them. Because she’s young, female and a person of color who attended a liberal college, Ellie is joining the force with a slightly different outlook. She’s not immune or insensitive to the way police are seen by urban youth because her close friends fall into that category. I love that struggle within Ellie as she attempts to figure out her future with the LAPD and what it may ultimately cost her in terms of relationships.

This is something crime fiction does -- offer a social vision. I think of Frank McShane’s observation that “[t]he detective story, so peculiar to the modern city, can involve an extraordinary range of humanity, from the very rich to the very poor.”

I think mysteries definitely can tell stories steeped with social history; that’s why I write them! Just the lead character himself or herself is very telling. The Japanese American gardener at one time was ubiquitous. Mixed race young people or kids of immigrants are everywhere today in L.A. (and throughout the nation). Writing my first novel, “Summer of the Big Bachi,” was the most challenging because I took on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I had to boil the story down until it was just one survivor dealing with his past demons. I guess you can sometimes criticize the mystery for minimizing larger issues: a single crime versus the obliteration of an entire city, for example. But I do think it humanizes history. A good mystery doesn’t, however, define it. The mystery creates a door -- whether the reader chooses to walk all the way in is the reader’s choice.



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