murder, culture and food: AAPI Mysteries

It is May and  AAPI Heritage Month is the perfect excuse to reread murder mysteries, but with an AAPI twist.  

Asian/AsianPacific Islander Heritage month is a chance to highlight the contributions of those whose families immigrated from the islands of Hawaii,  Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Micronesia,  as well as east Asia, from Korea to the Philippines.  Asian and Pacific Island writers have recreated the world of immigrant families where their traditions and contributions are the background for the amateur sleuthing. 

My grandparents immigrated from Japan and I was fortunate to grow up in the cultural richness of Hawaii.  (Where locals still exclaim in partial pidgin, “Lucky you live Hawaii!”)  And one of my hobbies has always been  murder mysteries with a cultural twist.

My earliest memories go to the ancient Charlie Chan movies, starring Sidney Greenfield. In an infamous case of cultural appropriation,  Greenfield (a caucasian with no Asian blood) played the wise and inscrutable detective with a pomposity that made him a stiff Asian caricature.  But, heck, it was the only thing on film seeming to represent Asian culture.  So I watched it.  And actually enjoyed the movies.

But I digress.  AAPI Heritage month celebrates Americans of that heritage and their contributions.  So I now turn to a series by Naomi Hirahara, born in Pasadena, a journalist, editor and writer for the Japanese language paper, Rafu Shimpo.  Definitely the real thing!  She has taken the stereotype of  the Japanese gardener and created a series of who-dun-its starring Mas Arai, who quietly solves mysteries that impinge on the Japanese community in southern California.  Mas is taciturn and almost courtly, but is a persistent investigator through and through, just like the fictional detectives Marlowe, Archer, Milhone, Mannix, Warshawski, just to name a few.  At the end of the seven book series, Mas and the reader understands how American Mas has become, despite the courtly Japanese mannerisms he clings to.  Start with Summer of the the Big Bachi and work your way to Hiroshima Boy. You won’t learn about Japanese culture, but about the Japanese American community in California and how it evolved and became more diverse while retaining its Asian nature.

“Lucky you live Hawaii!”  And in Southern California, too.  But in the smaller community that was Honolulu in the l950’s and l960’s, we enjoyed the cultural heritage from China,Korea, the Philippines, Japan, Samoa, and from native Hawaiians.  And the food!!    Luckily, I have found murder mysteries that  delve into that richness.

A new series written by Mia Manansala explores a Philippine community in Illinois, south of Chicago, where the protagonist is a persistent (she calls herself nosy) investigator of murder in her small town of Shady Palms.  A four book series, Manansala explores the family life of Philippino Americans as they operate as restaurateurs and coffee shop owners.  It will satisfy a reader’s craving for a good mystery, full of suspects, and for wonderful descriptions of food!  And after a good read, one can try out the recipes in an after index  for such treats as babingka, halo halo, champorado and much more!

Again, you won’t learn about the Philippines,but about a family that retains its core values as it adapts to an American landscape.  Start with Arsenic and Adobo.

Returning to Hirahara, this author has begun a second series of murder mysteries set in Waimea, rural Kauai.  She captures the family and community life in a small country village, set in a beautiful island and reflecting the diversity that infuses life in Hawaii.  The protagonist and detective, Leilani Santiago, embodies that diversity with a genetic heritage drawn from Japanese, Filipino and caucasian parents, as she interacts with friends of equally racially mixed heritage.  But it all comes together in totally Hawaiian setting:  the shave ice store! (This series starts with Iced in Paradise, followed by An Eternal Lei.)

What better way to celebrate AAPI heritage than to indulge in a not so secret pleasure!  These mysteries occupy a space in between the cozy mystery and the police procedural.  There are wonderful people to get to know and enough twists and turn to keep you puzzled.  Enjoy!

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