Murder and emotions unravel in postwar Little Tokyo mystery

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EVERGREEN

By Naomi Hirahara (New York: Soho Press, 2023, 312 pp., $27.95, hardcover)

Continuing to fill in the gaps of the postwar resettlement, Naomi Hirahara provides an intriguing and provocative mystery in “Evergreen,” next in the Japantown series. Finding menial jobs, sharing living quarters and trying to make ends meet are just the basic stressors on the surface. Teetering emotions such as pride and humility, loss and disappointment and hope and resilience simmer just below and continue to percolate throughout the book.

As a prelude, “While we were gone …” serves as an allegory of the loss and the changes in the streetscape that Japanese Americans faced upon their return to Los Angeles, after their forced removal and incarceration during the war. A map of historic buildings anchors the setting in Little Tokyo and Boyle Heights, the neighborhood immediately to the east. The mystery swiftly takes off with Aki, a nurse’s aide at the re-established Japanese Hospital, encountering injury victim Haruki Watanabe. Concerned about the severe wounds, unusual bruises across his body and his defensiveness, she seeks out Shinji, the son who brought him into the hospital. When he turns around, Aki is surprised to see “Babe” Watanabe, the best man in her wedding and a fellow soldier serving in the same unit as her husband.

“Evergreen” offers an intriguing cast of characters with a variety of experiences and back stories. Everyone is in transition, encountering a changed landscape with the influx of Black people from the South living in Bronzeville (formerly Little Tokyo) and new challenges in navigating race. When Aki is looking for a place to rent, she is touched by the empathy of Mr. Zidle, a Jewish man in Boyle Heights.

“Before I left his porch, I heard him call out, ‘I think it’s awful what they did to you people.’ Again, that ‘they.’ His sentiment was not lost on me. In fact, to hear it said so plainly and openly startled me so much that I couldn’t respond. Tears wet my lashes and cheeks …”

Having wed in Chicago over a year prior and separated by military service, when Art Nakasone joins Aki and her parents in Los Angeles, it takes time for the couple to re-establish their rhythm.

When Aki blurts out that she suspects that Babe may have beaten his father, Art quickly defends him, causing more divide. As the murder unravels, so do the emotions and determination of our lead characters.

Hirahara cleverly weaves together a riveting mystery with historical details of postwar Little Tokyo, touching on issues of race, postwar trauma and the rebuilding of community. Her extensive research as a non-fiction writer offers a solid base for her insightful reimagining of postwar resettlement in “Evergreen.” With the delightful forthright Aki and steady loyal influence of Art, we find reassurance in the Nisei, ready to face the challenges yet to come.

Naomi Hirahara is an Edgar Award-winning author of multiple traditional mystery series and noir short stories. Her Mas Arai mysteries, which have been published in Japanese, Korean and French, feature a Los Angeles gardener and Hiroshima survivor who solves crimes. Her first historical mystery, “Clark and Division,” which won a Mary Higgins Clark Award, follows a Japanese American family’s move to Chicago in 1944 after being released from a California wartime detention center. Her follow-up to “Clark and Division,” “Evergreen,” will be released this August.

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