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Sins as Scarlet by Nicolás Obregón

First published in Great Britain in 2018; published by St. Martin's Press/Minotaur Books  on December 18, 2018

Crime novelists who set stories in LA automatically reach for noir because, for all the hopes it offers, LA is “a city of despair, a city that never tired of rejecting those within it, a city of unclaimed dead.” I admired the evocative prose Nicolás Obregón uses to describe Skid Row and other dark environs in the City of Angels, but I was particularly impressed by Obregón’s ability to paint Mexico and the American border in the same dark detail. The desert opens the reader’s mind to a different kind of noir: “In the desert, there was no cooperation with any kind of force beyond death.” Sins as Scarlet, the second novel to feature Kosuke Iwata, is noir at its best.

Obregón introduced Kosuke Itawa in Blue Light Yokohama. The Tokyo homicide detective who graduated from the LAPD Academy has returned to LA in search of a new life as a private investigator. He has reunited with his mother but has not forgiven her for abandoning him as a child. The story eventually forces Kosuke to understand his mother’s actions and to deal with those feelings, while the reader is given added insight into Kosuke's mother in flashbacks to the mother’s life while she was still young.

Kosuke’s American wife Cleo had been in a persistent vegetative state when he left Japan. She died two years later. There’s more to that horrific story, and Iwata blames himself for his wife’s fate. Now Kosuke is having an affair with a married woman because being with her is his only chance to say something real to someone.

When Cleo’s mother insists that he investigate the murder of her other child, Iwata feels he has no choice. Charlotte Nichol’s son Julian transitioned and became Meredith before she was killed. Meredith had a pimp named Talky but Talky’s death strikes Iwata as being too convenient. He thinks Meredith was the victim of a serial killer, a suspicion that builds when he learns about other transgender homicide victims.

The plot takes Kosuke to Mexico, where he risks his life to piece together parts of the puzzle while meeting hopeful people who will end up “swallowed by the dream of a better life.” A scene that has Kosuke crossing the desert with a coyote and a group of undocumented immigrants is vivid and harrowing.

The crime that Kosuke eventually uncovers is too over-the-top to resonate as a realistic conspiracy, but that’s so common in modern thrillers that I was willing to accept it for the sake of enjoying a good story. And the story is very good. I particularly liked the way Obregón twists the plot to explain Meredith’s otherwise inexplicable murder.

Obregón made an old plot seem new by adding a fresh protagonist and intertwining the LA story with flashbacks to Kosuke’s life in Tokyo. Kosuke was sick of himself in Tokyo and he’s sick of himself in LA. He’s a perfect noir detective, the kind of damaged protagonist who struggles to be decent in an indecent world. Some scenes, including a depiction of Japanese death rituals, are quite touching. The novel moves quickly when it should, but lingers when the reader needs a break to think about the story and what it teaches. Sins as Scarlet is easily one of the finest examples of noir to appear in recent years.


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