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This 'Evergreen' LA noir novel imagines the post-WWII reality of Japanese Americans

Penguin Random House

The late historian Mike Davis dubbed Los Angeles the city of sunshine and noir. In LA, the promise of pleasure and prosperity exists side by side with darker energies — the kind you find in novels by James M. Cain and James Ellroy and in movies like Kiss Me Deadly and Chinatown. The city's history casts shadows that are long and deep.

You see them clearly in the absorbing new mystery Evergreen, by Naomi Hirahara. The book is a sequel to her acclaimed 2021 novel, Clark and Division, about a Japanese American family who had been locked up in the Manzanar concentration camp. In Evergreen, the family returns home to a 1946 Los Angeles where they discover that their old world has been erased: homes taken over, businesses seized by the state, the Little Tokyo neighborhood transformed into an African American enclave known as Bronzeville.

Our hero is Aki Nakasone, a recently married young nurse's aide at the Japanese Hospital in the Boyle Heights area of East LA. One day, Aki treats a battered old man. The patient turns out to be the father of Babe Watanabe, the best man at Aki's wedding and the best friend of her husband, Art, with whom he fought against the Nazis in Italy. Good at jumping to conclusions, Aki fears that Babe may be abusing his dad. Matters soon get worse: The old man is shot dead in his hotel room, and Babe proves, well, hard to find.

And so in her unobtrusive way, Aki starts playing detective. While Art spends long hours working at the local Japanese newspaper, Aki looks for clues, a search that takes her from the elegant reaches of Pasadena, to the squalid Burbank refugee camps where many returning Japanese American must live, to the Bronzeville nightclubs where Charlie Parker played bebop and people of different races mix out on the dance floor. Aki encounters scads of characters: an offbeat private detective, a reformed thug, war-damaged GIs and crooked cops, a sympathetic Jewish landlord who knows what it means to have your people put into camps.

Crime stories can sketch a portrait of society in many ways. Hirahara's approach is what we might call domestic. Not dwelling on bloodshed or perversity, she anchors her crime story in the realities of Aki and her family's daily life. This includes her father's doomed dreams of getting back his old job at the Japanese produce market — taken over by white proprietors — as well as Aki's marital troubles with Art who, like so many vets who saw deadly combat in World War II, has a hard time talking about what he experienced.

Along the way, Hirahara gives us a vivid picture of a roiling post-war LA where Chicago gangsters are moving into town, the KKK is burning crosses outside the Jewish frat at USC, Japanese Americans are struggling to regain property seized from them by the state and the LAPD can't quite decide who they dislike the most: Black people or the Japanese.

But Hirahara doesn't let historical background overpower the search for the killer. We're carried smoothly along by Aki's voice — calm, sensible, good-hearted, if sometimes a bit petulant — and by our sense of her growth. One of the novel's pleasures is watching her become increasingly bold — going from a diffident young woman to one willing to take chances and stand up for what she thinks is right.

Now, the noir sensibility is famously bleak; its protagonists live in a fallen world and are themselves often lost souls. Like Walter Mosley in his great Easy Rawlins books, Hirahara shows us a corrupt LA whose most endemic corruptions come steeped in racism. But — and this too recalls Mosley — she doesn't wallow in the self-indulgent cosmic nihilism that defines too much noir.

Early in the novel, Aki and her family rent a place in East LA. In a way, this new, much smaller home is a symbol of all they've lost since being forcibly removed from their house in suburban Glendale. Yet for all her awareness of what was done to Japanese Americans, Hirahara doesn't let Aki or Art sink into hopelessness. On the contrary, the street they move to gives the book its title, Evergreen, a word filled with the promise of life going on.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers
John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.