Mystery writer captures little-seen side of Japan

— When Sujata Massey travels to Japan to research her mystery novels, she often finds herself haunting Tokyo's crowded trains, armed with a notepad and pen.

But she's not watching commuters for the nervous ticks or flashing eyes of a latent killer. She prefers collecting the details of Japanese life that fill her suspense stories: the muscular man in his 30s wearing a "Milk Pie Club" sweat shirt; a brand of chocolate pretzels called "Pickle;" the "That's Donald!" slogan on another passenger's clothes.

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AP Photo

Baltimore novelist Sujata Massey speaks during a book signing session at the Mystery Loves Company bookstore in Baltimore. Her mystery novels, including the recent "The Samurai's Daughter," are set in Japan.

"I find myself noticing all these fantastic things that are so strange and weird they'd be impossible for me to make up," says Massey. "I'm fascinated with everything about Japan."

Massey's books have won or been nominated for several writing awards. Part of their success is the distinct world Massey captures -- one that surprises readers armed only with stereotypical images of overworked salarymen and demure geishas.

"Sujata really evokes a modern, quirky Japan that most Americans aren't familiar with," said Joe Guglielmelli, co-owner of The Black Orchid mystery bookstore in New York City. "She's the only mystery writer out there who's doing modern-day Japan."

Kimonos and comic books

In Massey's six novels, Rei Shimura, a Japanese-American antiques dealer who is not quite at home in either country, is sent down a twisting path to solve a whodunit murder mystery.

Along the way, Rei explores parts of Japanese culture most foreigners never see. She meets characters who scheme over rare antiques and kimonos, conceal secrets in comic books and, in her latest, just released novel, "The Samurai's Daughter," wrestle with guilt over atrocities committed during World War II.

"My mysteries don't come to me with the crime first. I always have a cultural phenomenon or a historical topic I want to explore," she says. "I don't set out to be a teacher, but I wind up learning things as I go."

Massey, 39, says the close attention to cultural detail is partly a product of her background: She was born in England to a German mother and Indian father and moved to the United States as a child. She now lives in Baltimore.

"When I was growing up, it was difficult to decide what culture I wanted to belong to," she says. "I've always been interested in children with parents from different countries and how they decide to make an identity."

Rei is just such a character. While she speaks fluent Japanese and could pass for a native, she's also a modern American woman, juggling a career, two boyfriends and an urge to rail against chauvinism, racism and sexism.

'An enthusiastic outsider'

Massey didn't set out to write about Japan. She graduated from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and got a job with the now-defunct The (Baltimore) Evening Sun, writing about food, fashion and culture. She then married a naval officer and in 1991 moved to the hilly seaside Japanese town of Hayama, where, she says, her life changed dramatically.

On one of her first days in the country, the minivan in which she was riding was swept into a festival where men in traditional costumes hoisted a portable shrine onto their shoulders and marched through the streets.

She was thrilled. She vowed to explore this new world, taking flower-arranging classes, studying Japanese, learning to drive on the left side of the road and socializing with her neighbors, observing their lives and interests.

"Rei is an enthusiastic outsider, and so was I when I lived in Japan," Massey says. "I knew nothing about Japan, except for the stereotypes about a cold, modern society with bullet trains and ruthless business men. ... I tried very hard to do things the right way and not offend people."

Eventually, she sat down to write a mystery novel about an outsider trying to fit into a country she loves but doesn't quite understand. Four years later, "The Salaryman's Wife" was published, winning the Agatha Award for best first mystery novel.

In the newest novel, "The Samurai's Daughter," Rei delves into darker territory, exploring the Japanese reaction to war crimes committed against its neighbors. Along the way, Rei discovers a secret connection between her family and Japan's violent colonial past.

"I wrestled with this question: How can the Japanese be so nice and wonderful, when we know that 60 years ago they were supposedly the most brutal people on the face of the earth?" Massey says. "I felt that I knew the answer by the time I finished that book."

She's now writing a novel in which Rei explores the world of Japanese fusion cooking -- part of the book is set in Washington, D.C.

Massey says she's interested in writing about India, where she and her husband have adopted two children.

"Just as Rei has discovered her family in Japan, I've started to discover my family in India as an adult," Massey says. "I'm finding myself as excited about India as I was about Japan. Maybe the answer is to send Rei to India."

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