Sujata Massey holds a copy of her newest novel, "The Typhoon Lover," to be released in October. Massey is working on a Hawaii-based mystery while staying at Ko Olina over the summer.

She dunit

The author of the Rei Shimura
series of whodunits is writing
a Hawaii-based mystery

Rei Shimura is an acknowledged expert in Japanese antiques, appreciates the artistry of a kaiseki dinner and can fling facts about Edo-period kimono design as well as anyone.

Faces of Rei

This international selection of book covers shows how publishers have imagined Sujata Massey's heroine, Rei Shimura, who is part Caucasian, part Asian.

About the writer

Her name: Pronounced sue-JAH-tah, a name from Buddhist history (she was a young woman who served Buddha rice or milk)

Family: Husband Tony and children Pia, 7, and Neel, 4, adopted from India. The live in a 100-year-old house in Baltimore.

Before the books: Studied writing at Johns Hopkins University and worked as a food and fashion writer for the Baltimore Evening Sun

Awards: Agatha Award for best first mystery; Macavity Award for Best Mystery ("The Flower Master")

To learn more: Visit www.sujatamassey.com.

The Rei Shimura mysteries: "The Salaryman's Wife" (1997), "Zen Attitude" (1998), "The Flower Master" (1999), "The Floating Girl" (2000), "The Bride's Kimono" (2001), "The Samurai's Daughter (2003), "The Pearl Diver" (2004), "The Typhoon Lover" (due in October), "Girl in a Box" (due next fall)

Meet the author

Sujata Massey will read from "The Typhoon Lover" and talk about how she researches and writes her mysteries.

When: 2 p.m. next Sunday

Place: Kaneohe Public Library

Admission: Free

Yet when she was finally able to visit Japan after many months in exile, what was she looking forward to?

"Shopping for bras for myself in the only country where A-cups ruled."

Now there's a gal who lives in the real world.

OK, not the real world, but the world created for her through meticulous research by writer Sujata Massey.

Massey is author of the Rei Shimura series, built around a Japanese-American heroine who unravels mysteries in her father's homeland -- except when she's banished for minor law-breaking and must settle for the crimes of her mother's American homeland.

In the course of seven novels, Massey has yanked Rei from Far East to East Coast, between a Scottish-lawyer fiance and a Japanese ikebana-master boyfriend, and through at least a half-dozen life-threatening situations. (In less tortured moments, Rei will enjoy a lovingly described meal at a noodle stand or shop for bras, as she does in the to-be-released eighth novel, "The Typhoon Lover.")

Massey has spent her summer vacation this year in a rental home in Ko Olina, plotting how to bring Rei to Hawaii for some sleuthing in paradise.

She and her husband, Tony, live in Baltimore with their two children, but a few months ago he pulled an assignment at Pearl Harbor. "I said, 'Go for it. I can write a book set in Hawaii.'"

Research is a daily devotion of combing the island for settings and interviewing locals for background stories that ring true.

"I have in mind that Rei's father is summoned to Hawaii along with his family from Japan -- by one of his long-lost relatives, an émigré from the 1920s."

As always, the story will be a cross-cultural stew. "It's about the Japanese community in Hawaii and the interaction when Japanese come from Japan and meet people who've been here a long time."

Massey herself could well be the poster girl for multiculturalism.

She was born in Sussex, England, to an Indian father and German mother, then moved to the United States at age 5. She married an American and adopted children from India. Helping raise them is an au pair from Sweden. With all that to draw from, she found her muse -- why not? -- in Japan.

Massey spent two years living in Yokohama when her husband, a Navy medical officer, was assigned there in 1991.

"I found it easier to be accepted in Japan than in India," she says.


Top, from left: "The Salaryman's Wife," Netherlands; "The Floating Girl," Germany. Bottom, from left: "The Floating Girl," Germany; "Zen Attitude," Japan

It was largely a matter of expectations. Because she was obviously not Japanese, Massey says, she wasn't expected to know all the social rules, so a breach or two could be forgiven.

She threw herself into the experience, learning the language, studying ikebana and taking cooking classes. "We made miso. We made tofu."

She taught English and she created Rei, who, like her, has never identified totally with any one culture, but is "an enthusiastic outsider."

"I shared some of my neuroses with Rei," Massey says.

"Rei has a continual dilemma of trying to find the place in the world she's most comfortable."

The writing of "The Salaryman's Wife" was finished 2 1/2 years after the Masseys left Japan in 1993. It was printed in 1997.

Since then her publisher, Harper-Collins, has welcomed a Rei Shimura book every year, a pace that so far suits Massey.

With every book comes a new round of research, into whatever milieu Rei will find murder andor mayhem. Massey's studies are extensive, to support the exacting detail of her books -- ancient Japanese textiles, for example, in "The Bride's Kimono," or ikebana in "The Flower Master."

Sujata Massey has set up her writing space on the dining room table of her family's summer rental in Ko Olina.

Her Hawaii plot is still in the making. "There will be a mystery," she says, "although at this point I don't know what it is."

She plans to bring in the Transpacific Yacht Race, which may mean learning to sail, and bon dancing, which she joyfully reports is a much more inclusive activity here than in Japan. "It's not just for old ladies. In my Japanese neighborhood it was primarily old ladies -- and me."

She's also picked up ideas at Hawaii's Plantation Village in Waipahu and Chinatown's Maunakea Marketplace -- "a fascinating place, and also there are a lot of shady-looking characters floating in and out."

This is the usual procedure: The mystery develops as Massey gets to know a place or investigates a social issue. Her last book, "The Pearl Diver," explored the often desperate lives of Asian war brides. She had Rei reach back in time to trace a Japanese woman married to a Vietnam vet whose dark secret cost her their baby girl.

The Hawaii mystery -- as yet untitled -- will be the 10th in the series, to be published in 2007. Due in October is "The Typhoon Lover," which entangles Rei in the theft of antiquities from Iraq. After that comes "Girl in a Box," centered on a Japanese department store, to be released next fall. She's on her second draft now.

Massey figures she has a few more Rei books in her. "I can't imagine doing this all my life."

But she says she will always be bound to subjects and characters that straddle cultures, as she continues to be intrigued by the wealth of stories that can be told within that mix.

Her characters are of all races, ages and religions, not to mention political, social and sexual orientations -- and she is nondiscriminatory in deciding the color of the good and bad guys. She dismisses the notion of a "noble savage" and won't treat any group as immune to evil.

Massey speaks to this final multicultural issue on her Web site: "In the end, my sleuth and I both share a belief that everyone is human, no matter how badly he or she behaves."

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