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The Sirens of Suspense




Naomi Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning author of the Mas Arai mystery series, which features a Los Angeles-based gardener and Hiroshima survivor who solves crimes.  The first in her new series, MURDER ON BAMBOO LANE, debuts on April 1.


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I gravitate towards writing about “invisible” people, such as that anonymous gardener tending a stranger’s lawn, the masseuse, the tattoo artist, and the waitress. Throw in age, and any woman past her fifties knows that she’s not going to command as much attention as she used to.

But younger people in their twenties don’t get much respect either. Depending on the field, millennials are brushed off as being too experienced, entitled, socially inept, or coddled. Many times, parents themselves discount their children’s assets. Well, I don’t have children, but I vividly remember what I was like when I was twentysomething. Sometimes irresponsible, risk-taking, and idealistic, I jumped into situations that sometimes were above my capabilities. I made mistakes and I made a lot of them. I didn’t know how to properly communicate, in either my personal and professional life. I wouldn’t want to relive my twenties, but looking back, I recognize those years were necessary to help stabilize me into the next phase of my life.

After graduating from college with a degree in international relations, I spent a year in an advanced language program in Tokyo. Although I’m ethnically Japanese (my mother actually is a native of Hiroshima), I spent a good part of my youth rebelling against speaking Japanese. (“Speak English, Mom” was frequently hissed at public places like department stores.) Ironically I now was fully embracing my heritage, attempting to read classic writers like Natsume Soseki in the Japanese language.

My plan was to apply to law school after I returned from Japan and become an attorney specializing in international law. Although I loved literature, I figured that I could become a writer after I retired from a prosperous law practice. There was only one problem. I didn’t like conflict. Moreover, I was considering law school mostly because it would make my parents, including my hard-working gardener father, proud.

A funny thing happened during my language studies. We had to all prepare for an end-of-the-year presentation. Some, who were getting their doctorates in history, political science, and literature, spoke about 18th century Japan, when the samurai system was being abandoned. (Actually one of my classmates would write a book on the real “last samurai,” Saigo Takamori, not the Hollywood version with Tom Cruise.)

I, on the other hand, decided to write a short story in the Japanese language. Titled “Hitotsuki ni Ikkai” (Once a Month), it was set on an island outside of Tokyo, where people monthly collected seaweed used in kanten or natural gelatin.

After I presented my short story to the group, I was hooked. I knew that I didn’t want to become a lawyer, despite how happy that achievement would make my mother. I returned to Southern California from Tokyo without much money in my bank account, determined to somehow build a life as a writer.

I got a job as an editorial assistant at a financially struggling magazine (one of my payroll checks bounced, thereby leading to a whole slew of bounced checks I had written) before landing a job at a bilingual Japanese American newspaper in the Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. Our offices were literally next to Skid Row, a block away from two homeless missions. My education in the real world was starting.

I worked as reporter, then left to do technical writing and public relations, and finally returned to the paper as editor of the English section at the age of 28. For the next six years, I supervised ten people, including reporters, photographers, and graphic artists, again making my share of mistakes along the way. During this time, I started seriously writing my first novel on a Toshiba laptop which only showed three lines of writing in the same neon orange font on a narrow screen. Finally in 2003, I was able to get an agent and publisher for the first installment in the Mas Arai mystery series, Summer of the Big Bachi, which was released in trade paperback the following year.

After writing five books in my Mas Arai series, which is inspired by my late father’s life, I have now embarked on a new mystery series with Berkley Prime Crime. It features Officer Ellie Rush, a 23-year-old rookie bicycle cop with the LAPD. The series really is not about bicycles or law enforcement, but more about a young woman from Los Angeles finding her way in the world. Her mother doesn’t really approve of her choice of a profession, and her aunt, the highest ranking Asian American in the LAPD, is a role model but perhaps cannot be fully trusted.

I’m experiencing a lot of joy in writing Ellie. Although I didn’t feel any insecurity in tackling an older male character, I did experience some apprehension in entering the mind of a younger woman in the 21st century. But as one of my mystery writing colleagues reminded me, I’ve never been an older man in his sixties and seventies, but I have been a 23-year-old woman at one time. In spite of the technological and other societal changes, people are still people. You just have to remember.





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