From a brief description, Naomi Hirahara’s Summer of the Big Bachi might sound like a cozy mystery: the protagonist, Mas Arai, is an elderly gardener, and the story revolves around his group of friends, many of whom hang out at Tanaka’s Lawnmower shop (it’s practically knitting, right?). The novel is slow-moving and spends a lot of time exploring the relationships between the various characters. But consider that the book is set in Los Angeles, the ur-noir location: its world is one of freeways, run-down bungalows, strip malls, and the far-flung suburbs where Mas mows the lawns and trims the bushes of wealthy clients. There is a secret poker game that erupts in a brawl and a sleazy gentlemen’s club. The mystery at the book’s heart, in true noir fashion, revolves around money and corruption.
Can there be a cozy noir? This book is darker than a cozy, but Hirahara’s compassion for her characters and their own persistent hope keep it from having the bleak cynicism of a noir or hard-boiled story.
Also in true noir fashion (for me anyway), I never quite understood the plot. But that didn’t matter to my enjoyment, because I’m wrong to say that big money and corruption are at the heart of the book. They kick-start events, certainly, but the true mysteries here are those of the heart and the memory. Mas was born in the United States, but spent most of his childhood in Hiroshima and is a survivor of the atomic bombing. His friends, Japanese-Americans like him, are also survivors of the war: some were in internment camps, some fought for the US, some survived war-time Japan. All of them are marked by those experiences–Mas may not have the keloids or missing finger-tips of his friends, but he’s no less scarred. And as the past returns, the tensions between their different experiences threaten to pull them apart. Can Mas confront and speak about what happened to him and his teen-aged friends on the day the pikadon fell? Can he continue to survive the past?
Even the novel’s title suggest the way the past comes back to haunt or influence people’s lives: bachi, as Mas explains it,
was when you snapped at your wife, and then tripped on a rock in the driveway. You didn’t suffer your punishment in another lifetime, but within the same life, even within the next few minutes.
Mas has been waiting 50 years for the past to trip him up, and when people from Japan show up asking questions about his boyhood friend Joji Haneda, he knows it has–with a vengeance, or with bachi. And yet, the past has never really left him: we see that he is more or less estranged from his daughter, and was often at odds with his late wife, too. The trauma he experienced when the bomb fell left him unable to express his feelings or connect with them. He disappointed Chizuko and Mari again and again, even though he wanted not to. Now he’s trying to set some things right, perhaps to redeem himself (though as he doesn’t believe in Jesus any more than Buddha, he wouldn’t put it this way).
Summer of the Big Bachi made me think about how mysteries always revolve around the past. When I’m teaching an Intro to Fiction course, I talk about a mystery as one model for plot: we open any story with a scene that we can’t fully understand or interpret, something that will look different to us once we get to the end. A classic mystery opens with a crime scene: from there, the plot moves forward as the detective’s work to solve the crime unfolds, but it also moves backward, because solving the crime involves understanding the events that led up to it. Think of CSI episodes, in which the interpretation of a new piece of evidence usually involves a flashback scene–as the technicians explain the clue, we see the moment in the past that created it.
I think this is part of why I love the genre: it makes something basic about the human condition so explicit. Our past marks us, defines us, makes us who we are. Here, both personal history and World History are significant in shaping the characters’ actions. That doesn’t mean they–and we–can’t change or that we’re trapped by the past, but understanding its mysteries is important to moving forward.
I loved watching Mas try to do this. He’s an imperfect man, reluctant to act, but when push comes to shove he tries to do what’s right. I’m curious about what will happen to him next, and particularly about his relationship with his daughter Mari.
Up next? I’m listening to Heyer’s Venetia now that there’s an unabridged version available, and pondering the rakish hero.