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.