Skip to main content

Snakeskin Shamisen


Snakeskin Shamisen

One of the great things about getting boxloads of books every week
is the opportunity of discovery. My latest find is SNAKESKIN
SHAMISEN by Naomi Hirahara.

Hirahara has received much critical acclaim for her nonfiction
work, though she is probably better known in academic circles than
in the public eye. SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN is her third work of fiction,
and the third to feature Mas Arai. Hirahara has created in Arai a
protagonist who arguably is one of the most unique characters in
contemporary mystery fiction. Arai is a septuagenarian, a Hiroshima
survivor living in Los Angeles who works part-time as a gardener
and who, within his community, has garnered some strong but quiet
renown as a detective. As Arai reflects frequently in SNAKESKIN
SHAMISEN, people treat him as if he is not there. So he observes
and listens undisturbed, and is able to connect disparate

While this alone would be enough to craft a strong mystery story,
Hirahara has taken the fish-out-of-water concept and given it some
twists and turns so that Arai, rather than being out of water, is
living in a sea that grows more unfamiliar by the day. Not only is
Los Angeles changing around him, but his own culture --- fairly
well insulated --- is both evolving and devolving. I was reminded
throughout SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN of Raymond Chandler's Marlowe talking
about the alien drumbeat of another race. The reader feels it, as
does Arai, not only with respect to Western culture but also to
Eastern culture as filtered through a Western prism.

Arai is not particularly likable, yet there is something endearing
about him so that one can sympathize with him. He is a man who
would prefer to do his work and be left alone, keeping social
contact to a minimum, yet he is bound by the concept of
osewaninatta. Westerners would call it returning a favor or,
from the other side, cashing in a chit. The concept, dealing with
being in debt to another and returning a favor, is much more deeply
engrained in Japanese culture. Thus, Arai is motivated to attend a
party given in honor of his friend and attorney, George Hasuike.
Arai does not want to attend, but Hasuike has helped Arai in the
past. Therefore, he has to go.

And he must become involved --- however reluctantly --- when Randy
Yamashiro, Hasuike's friend and host, is found murdered after the
party. Arai is an invisible man who quietly kicks over rocks,
uncovering a puzzle that has remained hidden and unsolved for
decades, having its roots in the shameful treatment of Japanese
Americans during World War II and revealing itself today in the
form of greed and shame. Again, however, SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN is more
than a mystery. It is a travelogue that quietly examines
contemporary Los Angeles from a perspective rarely, if ever, seen
in modern mystery fiction.

This is a haunting and compelling work, made all the more memorable
by the quiet understatement of its tone. While Hirahara is
presently underacknowledged and unappreciated in the world of
mystery fiction, SNAKESKIN SHAMISEN should correct that situation
quickly. Very highly recommended.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011

Snakeskin Shamisen
by Naomi Hirahara

  • Publication Date: April 25, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Delta
  • ISBN-10: 0385339615
  • ISBN-13: 9780385339612