2014 / Book review “Murder on Bamboo Lane”: Naomi Hirahara has hit a home-run with her new mystery

Murder on Bamboo Lane

Author:  Naomi Hirahara

Berkley Publishing Group

A Berkley Prime Crime Book

Copyright: 2014 Naomi Hirahara

292 pages

Book Cover Murder on Bamboo LaneBook review by June Aochi Berk

I believe Naomi Hirahara has hit a home-run with this new mystery book! 

The Edgar Award-winning author Naomi Hirahara’s heroine, Ellie Rush, in Murder on Bamboo Lane, is a bright young and delightfully infectious LAPD bicycle patrol officer, who secretly wants to become a detective.  As a bicycle cop, she is routinely assigned to Chinatown’s New Year Parade, where she accidentally becomes involved in a crime scene.  She is suddenly faced with actually seeing her first victim of a horrific crime, who she recognizes as a friend she knew in college.  

She cannot shake the image of her now dead friend, as she starts to search for clues in the neighborhood she patrols:  in new Chinatown and Historic Little Tokyo.  The author captivates the reader as she cleverly weaves intricate stories of the historical sites in the neighborhood into the fictional crime story. This sounds like it would make for a unique fun TV cop series!

As a prolific documentarian, Naomi Hirahara has authored many books about the Japanese American community leaders and places (Among her books are Green Makers: Japanese American Gardeners of Southern California; An American Son: The Story of George Aratani, Founder of Mikasa and Kenwood; A Taste for Strawberries:  Independent Journey of Nisei Farmer Manabi Hirasaki).  She has an extensive deep knowledge of Little Tokyo and the Greater Los Angeles area, and she engages the reader as Officer Rush covers this multi-racial city with an upbeat tempo and easy familiarity.

The reader moves in and out of police stations, in conversations among the police officers and the people on the street, learning unspoken rules of behavior from her fellow officers and trying to develop confidential informants among the people in her neighborhood.  She becomes a part of the community she serves.  Always alert and intuitively smart, Ellie can become either excited with her discoveries, or depressed with her frustrations that come with being a cop. It is not easy being that person or friend, now that is she is between those who highly respect police, and those who feel she is a traitor for “going to the other side.”   

Rush has quick intuitions of a street-wise cop and develops theories that she would like to share, but is cognizant of the fact that she knows her limits as a new bicycle cop who just completed her probation, and reporting to officers above her level.  The reader learns more about Officer Ellie Rush’s insights as she develops a more mature attitude of what it will take to become an effective partner-in-aid for the veteran Detective Cortez Williams, who becomes a mentor to Officer Rush.

One of the refreshing charms of this story is that the reader is taken along with Officer Rush in the daily grinding bicycle patrol, the action is slower than riding in a patrol car, even slower than the speeding car chases that we have become accustomed to in almost every “cop” series.  She is able to get us out of our cars, and discover the streets and smells and the variety of ethnic foods found at the street level, so that we are once again reawakened to the sights and sounds of the city.  We are no longer virtually entombed in our cars. The City itself is fast changing to a pedestrian friendly/cycling CicLAvia neighborhood. 

While searching for the suspect(s), Officer Ellie Rush discovers an immigrant community with their own unique problems; the census taking in these hidden homes of many undocumented immigrants becomes a part of the mystery.  Does this somehow involve the young woman who was found dead in her neighborhood?  

Her inspiration is her Aunt Cheryl, who is the Assistant Police Chief, a fact little known to her colleagues. With a background of being part Caucasian and third generation Japanese (Sansei), Ellie refers to herself as a “hapa” – a point of pride now among the younger generation. 

The word “hapa,” in the past, had connotations of undesirable heritage of not being a “pure” Japanese.  This slang terminology is used informally among Caucasian-Japanese-Hawaiian, and is now used in reference to anyone who is of mixed heritage.  “Hapa” is a shortened “pidgin English” for “half and half.”  

Along with Ellie’s bi-racial family, the reader is introduced to her interesting and colorful inner circle of multicultural family and friends. This is also a jumping off place to enjoy the multi-ethnic foods and places of interest that is part of Ellie Rush’s neighborhood.  I enjoyed being in Ellie’s world and wish that I could sit down and enjoy a bowl of boiling hot ramen noodles with her and spend some time getting to know her.    

The feelings of being “hapa” can either be debilitating, or a point of strength; it can bring feelings of being “different” in a negative sense, or “different” as in unique, attractive and creatively free to be what you want to be.  You no longer need to be limited by the century old traditions of either heritage, but as a “hapa,” you are free to begin your own life, your own unique lineage, according to what you feel is you, and take from the best of both cultures.  Ellie Rush begins to discover that side of her as she matures in her life experiences and police-working knowledge.  She becomes a person with personal initiative, imagination and confidence in her choices. 

I like the simplistic style of Hirahara’s building the heroine, who is neither embittered by her own past negative experiences or hardened by the people she encounters on the streets.  Ellie is not bound by her culture, yet it is refreshing to see her reminded of her values.  I was instantly captivated by Ellie’s warm down-to-earth friendliness and humor, and later, as you get to know her vulnerabilities, her personal fight to overcome her challenges. I would like to discover more about Officer Rush in her future adventures.  Is she not real?

June Aochi Berk, a Nisei, was born in Hollywood in 1932 as Yasuno Aochi. During the WWII, her family was sent to a concentration camp in Rohwer, Arkansas for three years. Currently June lives in Studio City with her husband. She has five children and nine grandchildren.