A few years ago, I checked out a book from the library called The Flower Master by Sujata Massey. It was a novel that chronicled a half-Japanese, half-American named Rei Shimura as she joined an ikebana class at a famous flower arranging school and subsequently assisted in helping to solve the murder of one of her instructors.
What I didn’t quite realize at the time was that the book was one of a series. Last month, I stumbled across two more of Massey’s Rei Shimura mysteries and have just completed both The Floating Girl and The Bride’s Kimono.
As each of the novels are fairly different in plot, I’ll sum up The Bride’s Kimono in this review. Rei Shimura is in her mid-20s, a half-Japanese and half-American expert in Asian antiques and part-time newspaper writer. She speaks Japanese but can’t read kanji well (I can completely relate) and lives in Tokyo, though The Bride’s Kimono takes Rei to America for the novel’s duration. In this particular mystery, Rei is asked to transport a priceless antique kimono collection to Washington DC, where it will be exhibited in a famous museum. Early in the course of the story, one of the kimono is stolen and a passenger who was on Rei’s flight is found murdered, with Rei’s passport and plane tickets on her body. Back in her country of birth but very much outside her depth, Rei has to work to find the kimono and clear her own name, while thwarting the intentions of a murderer and daling with ongoing romantic entanglements.
Despite having read three of Massey’s novels now, I still feel quite conflicted in how I’d rate them. I personally enjoy mystery and crime novels and to have them set in Japan is thrilling, as the settings Massey chooses are well-developed and ones that I often recognize. It can be hard to take a character in Japan and have them solve mysteries in a plausible setting, but Massey has succeeded in this aspect and only occasionally does Rei’s sleuthing feel a bit … forced.
The mysteries are intriguing and well thought out. In The Bride’s Kimono, I really wasn’t sure who the culprit was until right near the end and, despite some of my frustrations with the characters, I kept looking forward to when I could pick up the book next and figure out “whodunnit”. As I’ve been known to abandon books that just don’t keep me interested, I definitely would say the story has staying power.
For me, it’s the characters who ring a bit false. Rei is quite fascinating, in that she struggles with her bicultural identity and Massey seems to navigate that well (it seems from her bio, she’s had a similar life experience). But Rei vascillates in her romantic feelings so much that it drives be bonkers, and her interactions with other characters sometimes seem either too conciliatory or too physically rough (not always on her part). In The Floating Girl, she was actually physically pushed by a colleague as she got out of an elevator, something that seemed a bit extreme. Her interactions with many of the possible suspects also seem very odd. Other she is genuinely the kind of person who NEVER seems to meet anyone decent or kind, or Massey goes a bit too much out of her way to make all the other characters seem like suspects. Rei’s interactions with the American police in The Bride’s Kimono seemed quite unbelievable (to me, at least), due in part to the police attitudes but also to Rei’s utter lack of any kind of self-preservation. She was willing to let the police believe she was a prostitute, so long as they didn’t slander the girl she’d met on the plane for five minutes but whom she felt a strong obligation towards.
Despite those annoyances, I’m actually pleased to know that there are more Rei Shimura books after The Bride’s Kimono and if I have the chance, I’ll probably go check them out. This is a good series for mystery lovers, those interested in Japanese culture (many of the books delve into one particular aspect of culture quite deeply), and those who enjoy stories mostly set in Japan.