Living in LA and working as a private detective, former homicide detective Kosuke Iwata spends his days spying on unfaithful spouses and his nights with an unavailable woman. Still he cannot forget the family he lost in Tokyo. But that all changes when a figure from his old life appears at his door demanding his help.
Meredith Nichol, a transgender woman and his wife’s sister, has been found strangled on the lonely train tracks behind Skid Row. Soon he discovers that the devil is at play in the City of Angels and Meredith’s death wasn’t the hate crime the police believe it to be. Iwata knows that risking his life and future is the only way to silence the demons of his past.
Reluctantly throwing himself back in to the dangerous existence he only just escaped, Iwata discovers a seedy world of corruption, exploitation and murder – and a river of sin flowing through LA’s underbelly, Mexico’s dusty borderlands and deep within his own past…
Having been much impressed by Obregon’s first book, Blue Light Yokohama featuring Japanese homicide detective Kosuke Iwata, I’m delighted to report that Sins As Scarlet is even better. So much so that it has parachuted its way into my top five reads of the year so far…
Kosuke Iwata is a powerfully constructed character, shaped and formed, but with an underlying sense of self questioning, by his dual heritage and the collision of west and east almost fighting for supremacy in his identity. He has had a troubled past in terms of his upbringing and former estrangement from his mother, and has undoubtedly been tarnished emotionally by his fraught and ultimately destructive marriage. This book effectively straddles all of these relationships, providing an offshoot of narratives concerning his mother and wife, and cleverly by what we observe of their own characteristics gives us a broader understanding of Iwata himself, as a man, a son, a husband and a father too. I felt that sometimes I was observing him through a prism when it came to his emotional and personal identity, and the only real clarity in his character came through his professional role as a private investigator. I liked the way Obregon did this, and how Iwata then became a man of contradictions, and certain notions about his morality, integrity and so on were undermined by his interactions with, and influence of, the women in his life. An extremely interesting character, beautifully rendered, but undercut with a sense of personal tragedy, and a tangible lack of belonging.
Similarly, to the first book, I admire Obregon’s willingness to tackle big issues head on, showing no fear or favour, and opening the reader’s eyes to aspects of society that some would rather ignore. I think Obregon achieves this cleverly in two ways. First the straightforward narrative of murder within the transgender community, and Iwata’s later, and harrowing, experience traversing the desert from Mexico to the USA, which neatly encompasses the experiences of two groups of people that society as a whole are prone to vilify. Secondly, through the psycho-geography element of the book, where Obregon neatly uses the course of Iwata’s investigation, to crisscross Los Angeles, taking us on a tour of myriad neighbourhoods, divided by race and social inequality that show not only the singularly unique makeup of the city, but the gritty reality behind the showbiz exterior. I found these wanderings of Iwata absolutely fascinating, and the little factual nuggets of Los Angeles life that these give rise to, summed up by the assertion that, “Kosuke Iwata had gotten used to the staggered pockets of city that made up Los Angeles”, as his investigation becomes ever more difficult and personal.
Having become increasingly annoyed with a recent upsurge in the decrying of crime fiction as somehow inferior to ‘literary’ fiction, this is where a book such as this is worth its weight in gold. As author Jon Courtenay Grimwood commented on my social media rant on the subject saying “Crime novels specialise in asking the hard questions” and this is what Obregon deftly shows here. Sins As Scarlet is not only compelling as a thriller should be, but has layers of scrutiny and observation on the themes of race, gender roles, social division, migration and more, which makes it punchy and thought provoking, and at times exceptionally moving. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Michael Joseph for the ARC)