If you’re ever offered a teaching job at Fujikawa University, think long and hard before accepting. In Lea O’Harra’s first two police procedurals, Imperfect Strangers and Progeny, the sleepy college town in Kyushu has had a series of rude awakenings: first a university president found dead in his office, and then a little girl disappears amidst a sudden and violent crime wave. In her latest engaging mystery, Lady First, Fujikawa is jolted out of its slumber once again, this time when a young woman, working as a bar hostess in the nearby prefectural capital, is found stabbed to death in a local park.
Fortunately for Fujikawa, this “leafy but lethal” little town is also home to the Japanese counterpart of Hercule Poirot: Chief Inspector Kenji Inoue. With the help of his loving American wife and his comically mismatched deputies, he struggles against his overbearing supervisor and his own inner demons to get to the bottom of the mystery.
In this, as in O’Harra’s previous books, the mystery keeps you turning the pages, but its real purpose is to offer a peek into contemporary Japanese life, especially its shadowy side. As the title implies, one underlying theme is the way Western ideas of gender equality have been slow to take root in Japan, and grown into a rather different shape than in their native soil. O’Harra excels at portraying multiple facets of life and relationships in rural Japan: the mixed blessings of international marriage, the secrets that women conceal even at the risk of their own safety and enough desperate housewives that Fujikawa (Wisteria River) might equally well have been called Wisteria Lane. In Lady First, O’Harra serves a platter of tasty morsels of life behind the rice-paper screen.
Some of these tidbits might best be enjoyed with a grain or two of salt. Certain scenes seem to hark back to a bygone generation: a daughter’s weekly visit to her mother is a highly formal tea party, and a young woman who misses her train shows restraint worthy of the Imperial Household, “with a smile pasted on as though missing the last train home was the best thing that had ever happened to her,” even though no one who saw her would have been likely to begrudge her at least a grimace and a muttered “Saiaku!” But apart from such minor quibbles, Lea O’Harra has crafted an engrossing mystery with a likeable sleuth, serious issues served with humorous seasoning and enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing.
Find out more about Lea O’Harra at www.leaoharra.com and discover why Lady First has been named a finalist in the crime fiction section of the annual Beverly Hills Book Awards. : www.beverlyhillsbookawards.com.