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SINS AS SCARLET by Nicolás Obregón: Book Review

Inspector Kosuke Iwata, formerly of the Tokyo Police Department, is now a private investigator in Los Angeles.  After solving two high profile cases in Japan’s capital, Iwata decides to leave his life there and move to California and start a new career as a private investigator.  But there’s more to his decision than the one he publicly admits to, that of a desire to flee fame.  As Sins as Scarlet progresses, bits and pieces emerge that tell his story.

The book’s title comes from Isaiah 1:18:  “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”  Certainly the sins in this novel are multiple and scarlet; the question is, can they ever be made as white as snow?

As a young child, Iwata was abandoned by his mother, Nozomi, and placed in an orphanage in Japan.  Although he received letters from her occasionally that promised she would come for him, he never believed it would happen; thus he was stunned when after a decade she appeared with her American husband and the three flew to California.  Nozomi never explained to her son why she had left Japan or why she returned to get him after so many years.  Now Iwata and his widowed mother are both living in Los Angeles, although separately, with this still-unresolved issue continuing to create tension between them.

After spending years in California, Iwata returned to Japan with his American wife, Cleo; the pair later became parents.  References are made throughout the novel to Cleo and their young daughter, but what happened to them and why they are not a part of Iwata’s current life remain a mystery until almost the book’s end.

On what starts out as an ordinary morning of seeing prospective clients, Iwata is stunned when Charlotte Nichol, Cleo’s mother, walks into his office.  So angry at him that she can hardly contain herself, she has seemingly forced herself to come to him for help.

She tells him that her other child, Julian, has been murdered and that the police are doing nothing to solve the crime.  Iwata knows that Julian transitioned gender years earlier and had become Meredith. Obviously this is something that Charlotte has not completely accepted, as evidenced by her using both names to refer to her child; she has come to Iwata as a last resort, only after deciding that the police have no interest in solving the crime.

“I’ve come here because Meredith was murdered and you’re going to do your work for me….You owe me that much for Cleo,” she declares.

As the definition of noir is crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings, this is the “most noirish” mystery I have recently read.  There is so much unhappiness, despair, and criminality in this book that it almost makes the reader give up on the human race.  But then there’s Kosuke Iwata, a man shouldering his own heavy burden, who refuses to look away from the crimes and criminals that surround him in order to keep his promise to Charlotte.

Sins as Scarlet is the second novel by Nicolás Obregón I have reviewed, Blue Light Yokohama being the first.  This book reinforces my belief that he is a gifted writer, one who takes the reader to the darkest places but then leaves that reader with at least a small glimmer of light at the end.

You can read more about Nicolás Obregón at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden Oldies, Past Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.




KIND OF BLUE by Miles Corwin: Book Review

California native, son of a Holocaust survivor, member of the Israeli armed forces, L.A. detective, surfer–that’s Asher Levine’s c.v.  In Miles Corwin’s debut novel, his protagonist is a man of many parts, tormented by most of them.

Ash was a highly respected member of the Los Angeles police department until a year before this book opens.  At that time he had promised protection to a very reluctant witness to a murder, but despite his best effort the woman was killed.  Torn by guilt and feeling unsupported by his superiors, Ash resigned from the force.

But as Kind of Blue opens, his former lieutenant Frank Duffy comes to Ash’s mother’s house where Ash is having shabbat dinner.  Duffy asks his former protegee to return to the force to investigate the murder of an ex-cop.

Ash is reluctant but he agrees, with the silent proviso that when he solves this case he’ll be able to return to the one where his witness was killed.  He had been hurt by the official reprimand Duffy had placed in his file after that murder, but he sees his reinstatement as a chance to go over once again all the parts of the crime that led to his resignation–the killing of a Korean shopkeeper and the subsequent elimination of the witness who saw the shooter.

By all reports Pete Relovich was a good detective who found too much solace in the bottle.   His marriage ended, and he was having trouble making child support payments for his beloved daughter, so he took a job as a driver for an escort service.  Did he see something/someone there that led to his murder?  Because there’s an unexpected treasure that Ash finds hidden under a tile in Relovich’s kitchen–two Japanese ivory carvings and $6,000 in cash.  Where did they come from?

And is a just a coincidence that when Ash is trying to locate Relovich’s former partner he discovers that he too is dead?  The official report says suicide, but Ash isn’t convinced.

Ash’s personal life is kind of a mess too.  Separated from his wife, he meets a beautiful art gallery owner who is an expert on Japanese art.  There’s romantic tension there, but will the fact that Nicole Haddad is of Lebanese descent be a stumbling block in their relationship?  Or is that a minor problem compared to the fact that Nicole already has a boyfriend and only wants Ash when her boyfriend isn’t around?

There are so many threads to follow in this novel that I almost needed paper and pencil to keep them straight.  There’s anti-Semitism in the detectives’ bureau, the various parts of the dead cop’s life, the demons that plague Ash’s sleep, and his determination to find the killer of his witness.

The picture Corwin paints of the Los Angeles police department isn’t a pretty one. There are inept detectives, crooked detectives, cover-ups at all levels.  No wonder Ash wants to go it alone; he doesn’t know whom he can trust.

Miles Corwin has written a taut, exciting first novel, and I’m sure there will be more to come in this series.

You can read more about Miles Corwin at his web site.