I'm delighted to introduce you to one of my favorite mystery writers, Naomi Hirahara, Edgar Award winning author of the Mas Arai and Officer Ellie Rush bicycle cop series. Put both her series in your TBR pile. You'll thank me. Elaine Viets
By Naomi Hirahara, Guest Blogger for the Femmes Fatales.
When I completed my debut mystery after 15 years of writing, marinating and rewriting, I didn’t imagine my amateur sleuth, an aging L.A. gardener and Hiroshima survivor, would have a tale that would span over seven novels.
Yet, knock on wood, that seems like what will be happening as I prepare to write the final installment of the Mas Arai mystery series.
As I recently watched the final episode of “Inspector Lewis” on PBS, I couldn’t help but to think, is this the best way to end a mystery series? Was it a satisfying coda to a character that first appeared in another series, “Inspector Morse”? And is there anything I can take away and apply to my own writing journey?
The arc of my Mas Arai series has been developed through both artistic prerogative as well as commercial interests. The second one, GASA-GASA GIRL, would not have been produced so quickly or perhaps not at all if it had not been for my contract with my first publisher, Random House. They wanted a third, SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN, which would go on to win an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original.
Because of various corporate shake-ups, editorial changes and my own need to try something different (a middle-grade novel), I decided that I needed a break from the once-a-year mystery series schedule. But when my agent was shopping around a standalone novel, another publisher wanted to continue Mas instead. At that point I realized that I couldn’t let outside interests determine the fate of my beloved sleuth, whose creation was inspired by my father’s life. I needed a plan.
A minor criticism of my second mystery printed in a San Francisco newspaper still stayed in my mind. What was I doing to poor Mas? Was I heaping misfortune after misfortune upon him for no reason other than to continue the series? There had to be a reason for each book, and it couldn’t be just a monetary reward.
Up to that point, each one of my books carried some kind of theme. Survivors’ guilt, diaspora of family and community, and the effects of colonial rule – all aspects of a past generation’s struggles. The next three, I decided, would take on my generation’s issues: addiction, technology, and the cult of celebrity. It would end with Mas revisiting Hiroshima, the theme of the first.
Since I made that literary decision, all sorts of things have happened. The fourth Mas was published without its acquiring editor and only in hardback during the depths of the Great Recession. This was the death of Mas, I thought, as I shared my publishing woes with my local mystery bookseller, a friend.
She then told a local L.A.-based publisher that I might be interested in being part of her effort to expand her fiction titles. We met in person over drinks and the deal was sealed. Mas would get a new life with Prospect Park Books (PPB).
Since that initial meeting, the fifth and sixth Mas Arai mysteries, along with a paperback reissue of the fourth, have been published with PPB. During this period of time, Mas’s inspiration, my father, was diagnosed with stomach cancer and after my family cared for him at home in hospice, he passed away.
Through these life journeys, I’ve come to understand that writing about Mas is not only about the mystery, but also about the man and others like him. It’s for readers who have lost their elders and struggle to remember their idiosyncratic behavior. It’s for our layers of history that have been either forgotten or never been told.
I recently returned from a three-week research trip to Japan, mostly financed through a foundation that support cross-cultural activities. I spent most of that time in Hiroshima, my roots, but a place that I’ve known only through my relatives. Through this summer’s journey, I got to know the city through my own lens, but also with Mas right beside me. The photo of hand-drawn lanterns was taken there August 6. Seeds of the finale have been sown and I look forward to see what grows by the time I complete my manuscript by next May.
And in terms of “Inspector Lewis” – yes, I think that it was a perfect end to the story of a devoted family man and journeyman police officer. The episode delivered the same kind of twisty plot (although this time I did figure who did it about halfway in) that it always had done. I’m celebrating the end by going to the beginning: watching “Inspector Morse” on Netflix when Inspector Lewis was a young man. That’s the way that a series should end, I think. It should be a continuum, a completion of a full circle.
Naomi Hirahara is the Edgar Award-winning author of two mystery series set in Los Angeles. Her Mas Arai series, which features a Hiroshima survivor and gardener, has been translated into Japanese, Korean and French. The first, SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, is being developed into an independent film. Her Officer Ellie Rush bicycle cop series received the 2014 T. Jefferson Parker Mystery Award. She has also published noir short stories, middle-grade fiction and nonfiction books. She will be one of the guests of honor at Left Coast Crime Reno in 2018. For more information, go to www.naomihirahara.com.