by Sujata Massey
Author Sujata Massey is having a banner year in 2019, winning an Agatha Award for Best Historical Novel, the Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award from the Mystery Writers of America and a Lefty Award for Best Historical Mystery Novel for her book The Widows of Malabar Hill.
She’s no stranger to awards: Her first novel, The Salaryman’s Wife, won the 1997 Agatha Award for Best First Novel and her novel The Flower Master won the 2000 Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel.
This inspired me to look back on her wonderful series featuring Japanese-American Rei Shimura.
In the first book, she is 27 and has left her San Francisco home to teach English in Japan. With a master’s degree in Japanese art history, she becomes an antiques consultant to wealthy clients, usually foreign, who want to buy Japanese antiques. In The Floating Girl (2000), she becomes an arts and antiques columnist for an English language monthly, The Gaijin Times.
The early books in the series take place against a backdrop of Tokyo noodle shops, Kyoto temples, antiques stores and the bars of Roppongi, Rei circulates between the strata of Japanese and gaijin (foreigners’) societies. She looks Japanese and speaks the language fluently, so she is mistaken for native Japanese by Westerners. But the Japanese always recognize that she is a foreign-born.
As the series progresses, she meets and then lets go of a boyfriend and picks up various jobs that take her to Washington, D.C., where her Caucasian mother is from. She goes from amateur sleuthing to espionage for the U.S. government. She takes a brief break in Shimura Trouble (2008) when her father has a stroke. But even then, family issues festering since World War II in Hawaii bring her back to detecting.
This is a fun series in an exotic location. Sujata brings Japan alive for readers without sacrificing characters or plots. Rei’s life evolves and changes over the course of the series, so it’s a good idea — although not essential — to read the books in order.
The books in this series are:
- The Salaryman’s Wife (1997). Rei has left her seedy Tokyo neighborhood to visit an ancient castle town. She is the first to find the beautiful wife of a high-powered businessman dead in the snow. She sets out to find clues to reveal the murderer and accidentally ends up pursued by the police.
- Zen Attitude (1998). Rei leaves teaching English to run her own antiques business in Tokyo. When she buys a tansu from a con man, she realizes she has opened a Pandora’s box of mystery, theft and murder — especially after the con man is found dead.
- The Flower Master (1999). Thanks to her aunt, Rei finds herself reluctantly enrolled in flower arranging classes. She finds more excitement than she anticipated when the class turns into a stage for murder.
- The Floating Girl (2000). Rei finds a new job with a Japanese magazine designed for foreigners. She’s assigned to write a story on manga. The man she interviews for the story turns up dead and Rei sets out to find out who killed him and why.
- The Bride’s Kimono (2001). Rei is asked to exhibit her collection of kimonos and give a lecture about them at a renowned museum in Washington, D.C. But within hours of landing, one of the kimonos is stolen and Rei’s passport is found in a shopping mall dumpster on the dead body of a Japanese tourist she traveled with.
- The Samurai’s Daughter (2003). Rei returns to San Francisco to visit her parents and research the story of 100 years of Japanese decorative arts through her own family’s experience. Her boyfriend, attorney Hugh Glendinning, arrives. he is involved in a class action lawsuit on behalf of aged Asian nationals forced to engage in slave labor for Japanese companies during World War II. Rei’s and Hugh’s projects become entwined when one of Hugh’s client’s is murdered and Rei discovers some unwelcome facts about her family’s actions during the war.
- The Pearl Diver (2004). Rei, now engaged and starting a new life in Washington, D.C., is asked to furnish a trendy Japanese restaurant. When her cousin vanishes from the restaurant’s opening night party, Rei finds herself hunting not only for her cousin but also for a Japanese war bride who disappeared 30 years earlier.
- The Typhoon Lover (2005). Rei is asked to find and authenticate an ancient Middle Eastern pitcher that disappeared from Iraq’s national museum and is believed to be in the hands of a wealthy Japanese collector.
- Girl in a Box (2006). To supplement her flagging work, Rei takes a freelance gig with a Washington agency that may have ties to the CIA. Her assignment is to go undercover as a clerk in a big Tokyo department store. When her cover is blown, she finds herself in big trouble.
- Shimura Trouble (2008). During a family reunion on the island of Oahu, Rei is roped into helping the Hawaiian branch of her family regain land stolen from them in World War II. Her task becomes complicated when a fire sweeps the island and her young cousin is accused of arson.
- The Kizuna Coast (2014) is set in post-tsunami Japan and puts Rei in the middle of relief efforts as she tries to help a friend and fellow antiques dealer find his missing apprentice, a 19-year-old girl from a famous lacquer-making family.
The Author: Sujata Massey (1964 – )
In several ways, author Sujata Massey’s life is a mirror of her character Rei Shimura’s. Massey was born in England to an Indian father and a German mother. Her parents immigrated to the United States when she was five. She grew up in St. Paul, MN, and Baltimore.
After graduating from Johns Hopkins University, Sujata became a fashion and food reporter for the now-defunct Baltimore Evening Sun. She married a Navy medical officer and they moved to Japan in 1991. While living in Hayama, she taught English, studied Japanese and wrote fiction.
In 2013, she started a new historical suspense series, The Daughters of Bengal. The first book of this series is The Sleeping Dictionary and is set in British India between 1930 and 1947. It features 10-year-old Pom, a peasant girl orphaned by a cyclone who journeys through colonial Bengal to survive. Her life ranges from servitude at a girls’ boarding school in Midnapore to a pleasure house in Kharagpur to involvement in the Indian freedom movement in Calcutta.
The first book in a third series, the Perveen Mistry Investigations, is set in historical 1920s Bombay, opening with The Widows of Malabar Hill (2018). This series features Bombay’s first female lawyer, Perveen Mistry, a character partly based on the real trailblazer Cornelia Sorabji.