Murder on Bamboo Lane, by Naomi Hirahara

Last year I read and enjoyed the first book in Naomi Hirahara’s Mas Arai series, featuring a Japanese American gardener in Los Angeles, with a mystery dating back to Hiroshima in World War II. Murder on Bamboo Lane is the first book in her new series featuring Ellie Rush, a young LAPD bike cop (Ellie’s mom is Japanese American, her dad is white). I think I liked this book even more. It made a good followup to Synithia Williams’ Just My Type, since both feature heroines in their early twenties finding their feet both professionally and romantically.

Murder on Bamboo Lane uses first person narration, unusual in mysteries–at least the ones I read. I thought it fit the youthful character, fresh out of college and in her first year on the force, maybe because I’m used to first person in YA and in romances featuring young characters. Hirahara created a voice that seemed right for Ellie:

Our squad room is totally old school. It looks like the cardboard sets on the television police dramas my father likes to watch. My college library had better computer equipment than we do here, but we make do.

Ellie’s college was Pan Pacific West, and many of her friends are still students there. When Jenny Nguyen, a Pan Pacific West student and (like Ellie and many of her friends) a member of the Asian Pacific Students Union, first goes missing and then is shot to death in Bamboo Lane, Ellie’s connections at the college involve her in solving the crime.

Ellie isn’t a detective, though, and she makes some mistakes, in part because she’s torn between loyalty to her friends; her aunt Cheryl, a Deputy Chief, who wants reports on the case directly from Ellie; and Cortez Williams, the (hot) detective she’s working with. Ellie may be a cop, but this book is definitely a cozy rather than a police procedural. Ellie’s occasional amateurishness verged on the annoying, but it mostly worked for me because she’s young and new on the job, and she does learn a lot over the course of the case, including about whom she can really trust and how she needs to act if she wants others to trust her. The mystery plot was engaging, involving both city and Vietnamese community politics; I thought it jumped from one apparent direction to another pretty abruptly, but when I looked back the clues were mostly there.

Ellie’s relationships with her family, diverse goup of friends, newly-ex boyfriend Benjamin and the sexy Cortez are as big a part of the book as the mystery, and I liked these parts too. Ellie feels alone for a lot of this book; she’s moving into adulthood faster than her friends are and she doesn’t quite belong anywhere. But over the course of the book she stops seeing her best friend Nay, in particular, as less mature and recognizes how much Nay supports her and how little she’s been offering in return. Renogotiating roles in relationships with friends and family is a big part of growing up, and Ellie starts doing that here.

If you’re interested in a “cozy” mystery with a realistic urban setting, a diverse cast of characters, and a ramen house instead of a cupcake shop, this book is for you. I’ve already bought the next one in the series.


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9 Responses to Murder on Bamboo Lane, by Naomi Hirahara

  1. Janine Ballard says:

    This sounds great. Even though I’m not a big mystery reader, I’m intrigued by your descriptions of the characters (heroine especially) and also, the setting. I live in Los Angeles, and it’s always interesting to read a book set in a place I’m familiar with.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I don’t know LA well at all (I did spend a few years in Orange County) but I thought the setting seemed really well done.

    • lawless says:

      I’m pretty sure Hirahara lives in LA too. The book seemed quite assured when it came to the setting. I felt similar to Liz about it.

  2. Sunita says:

    The Japanese gardener series sounds right up my alley, but I wasn’t drawn in by the sample of this one. Maybe because she sounds so much like a college student to me, and I hear those voices enough already. 🙂

    On first person, it’s very common in a certain type of mystery novel: Mosley, Ellroy, Robert Parker, and Raymond Chandler all use it. And Sue Grafton uses first POV in her Kinsey Millhone series. Maybe it’s less common in cozy, which this does seem to be the subgenre here.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I was thinking about why this book appealed to me when New Adult romance is something I typically avoid for the same reason. I think it was the difference in themes/tone–and yet, her romantic troubles turned out to be a fairly big focus of the book. I think what appealed to me here is that detective protagonists are so often world-weary, and Ellie is not (yet).

      True, noir/hard-boiled is usually first person. I always figure that’s because the detective is as lost as the reader (vs. a nearly omniscient figure, such as Holmes, who requires a Watson as a reader stand-in so the narrative can involve surprise). And that’s true for Ellie too. That’s another way Hirahara kind of blends noir-ish (setting, narration) with cozy. I think the Mas Arai series is 3rd person.

  3. lawless says:

    I didn’t realize that The Summer of the Big Bachi was the first in the Mos Arai series. I got bogged down in the backstory and the ill-feelings between the characters. Maybe I’ll go back and give it another try someday. This series was more up my alley. Now that I know the second book is out — it wasn’t when I read it — I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. It’ll be fun to watch her mature and handle internal politics, especially given her aunt’s position of authority.

    I was going to make a similar point to Sunita’s about the 1st person POV — Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder books, which are classically noir, are 1st person as well. I agree that this book positions itself somewhere between noir (setting and narration, as you say) and cozy. What distinguishes a cozy from a police procedural, though? Couldn’t this be viewed as a cross between all three (noir, cozy, and police procedural) even though she’s somewhat out of her depths in the investigation?

    I loved the setting, the cultural details, and the diverse cast. That’s much of what made the book for me. That last paragraph of yours could be the tagline for the book.

    I’m not interested in most m/f NA but a lot of the m/m I’ve read would quality as NA. So many of the m’f blurbs don’t sound like the characters are finding anything out other than how much they like the other person and sex with them. News at eleven, really. Even today, and definitely before the ruling on same-sex marriage, recognizing one’s attraction to the same gender — especially for men — puts one at odds with a heteronormative society.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I got kind of bogged down in the Big Bachi backstory as well. I think I might try another one, though, to see if it’s less of an issue. I liked seeing an older character at the centre of a story.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Oh, and my other comment–I found it hard to see it as a police procedural, I guess, because she basically never followed procedure! She operated much more like an amateur detective. I think the main defining feature of “cozy” is that they aren’t really violent or gory. More like many Golden Age books (although right now the trend for cozies is often cutsey small town stories with cats, knitting, or cupcakes, I feel classic-type puzzle mysteries could qualify. But I don’t really know).

      • lawless says:

        I suspected that it was her failure to follow police procedure (since she is neither a detective nor especially experienced); thank you for the confirmation. Some of these genre divisions can be hard to grasp as well as open to interpretation. I still don’t know what “modern” means exactly (or “realism”) when it comes to literature, and I barely understand what “postmodernism” is.

        I agree that many Golden Age mysteries are technically cozies. particularly those with a primary detective who is not with the police. That includes Christie, who, to be fair, also wrote thrillers and action/adventure, sometimes mixed with farce. But while Nero Wolfe novels could technically qualify as cozies because of the lack of blood and gore, in tone and style they’re more hard-boiled verging on noir. I’m pretty sure they’re written in first person as well.

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