by Sharon Tucker
“It often seems to me that’s all detective work is, wiping out your false starts and beginning again.”
“Yes, it is very true, that. And it is just what some people will not do. They conceive a certain theory, and everything has to fit into that theory. If one little fact will not fit it, they throw it aside. But it is always the facts that will not fit in that are significant.” ? Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile
Howard Fast, one of the blacklisted authors who survived the McCarthy area, wrote more than eighty novels in his career, but the ones I know best are his Masao Matsuto series written between 1967 and 1984. Doing a little research on him, I recognized the titles some of his historical novels but found these listed in one of the book newsletters we all get and was intrigued. So, I began with his first three: The Case of the Angry Actress (1967), The Case of the One-Penny Orange (1977), and The Case of the Russian Diplomat (1978). I enjoyed the safeness of these books, much along the same lines of seeing Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason. Solutions to the mysteries aren’t immediately obvious and going back in time with Fast to the LA he knew is new territory to me. Matsuto is a clever detective, but hardly a miracle worker. He works his way through cases with focus, intelligence, and very little pre-conception. Regular meditation doesn’t hurt, either.
Our setting is Los Angeles of the late 1960s. We begin with little backstory on Matsuto other than that he is second-generation Nisei, married to a traditional Nisei woman, has two children, a lovely rose garden, and is a practicing Zen Buddhist. As the novels begin, he’s long established in the Beverly Hills Police Department as a detective, so there’s no working his way up through the ranks despite open prejudice or micro-aggression to deal with. The anti-Japanese prejudice most frequently comes from the citizens he’s protecting or investigating. Not pretty. However, his eye for what doesn’t fit makes him a successful detective.
As The Case of the Angry Actress opens, we get a thumbnail sketch of who Matsuto is in the context of his workplace as well as a breakdown of how Los Angeles individual police departments do and don’t work together (makes me wonder what the breakdown is today and if it has improved). We are soon immersed in a possible homicide Matsuto is called to investigate. A movie magnate had been discovered dead in the midst of a dinner party in his home. It seems he died of a heart attack. Some of the guests think so and when other members of the dead man’s production team start dying Matsuo needs all his focus and clarity to stop men from dying.
A break-in with nothing stolen and a murdered stamp collector whose store has not been robbed would seem to have little in common on the surface in The Case of the One-Penny Orange. However, Matsuto is perturbed at the lack of a discernible motive in both crimes. Leave it to him to find the commonality centering around the novel’s title.
If it is Los Angeles, sooner or later a dead body will be found in a swimming pool, and here it’s in the pool at the Beverly Glen Hotel. The fact that his clothes are missing rules out accident, and when the witness who found the body goes missing as well, Matsuto finds the coincidence troubling. He also finds himself juggling hotel management’s frantic need to downplay and spin the “accident” as even more bodies turn up, one of whom is a cultural attaché to the Russian embassy. The Case of the Russian Diplomat doesn’t stop there but ties to Las Vegas and an exotic dancer do little to clarify any issues. At least the FBI comes in to muck everything up beyond recognition. This one is complicated.
I read all seven of these one after the other, never tiring of the world of the books even though the final in the series seemed a little labored—or maybe that was me. Fast (here writing as E.V. Cunningham) was a fastidious chronicler of cultures in his novels and nonfiction. His Nisei detective convinced me by the power of understatement more that the outward flourishes of Zen insight. Matsuto is charming and slyly humorous. I enjoyed the social issues that arose in the books, best that I don’t detail them—the better to discover them as they unfold. I also liked that, although the movie business didn’t take top priority in storylines and characters, the LA atmosphere was strong, and what is LA without mentioning Hollywood?
I’ll read these books again because I like the era, the characters, and Fast’s storytelling. The Masao Matsuto novels are now a comfort read.
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