Sins as Scarlet

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 18 Dec 2018

Member Reviews

The author wrote a thriller that started with a bang and just kept going!  The twists kept coming, so I couldn't put it down.  I cannot wait to read more from this author!
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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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Fascinating characters and an interesting plot make this a very good read.  Kosuke Iwata is a classic tortured detective with a twist- he's a Japanese American who has returned to the US after tragedy in Japan, where he was a detective and now he's working low level private eye type cases.  He's also exploring his own past, a personal history that he was unaware of.  When his transgender sister-in-law Julian/Meredith, is murdered, he finds himself in the underbelly of the beast, switching between Mexico and the US.  There are no pretty things here, but this isn't as noir as it could have been.  I did not read the first book, which I think was a mistake because I missed an opportunity to spend time with Iwata but that was not an impediment to enjoying this one.  Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.  This is a page turner.
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Wow ! Just finished it and OMG, it was so good !
I was really happy to read another novel with Inspector Iwata and it didn't disappoint !
The story is a bit different from what we see in Blue Light Yokohama but it's not a bad thing. On the contrary, I'm quite satisfied (happy !) with what the author chose to do with the story and where he made it happen because, by doing so, he tackled some heavy, very interesting and sensitive subjects. It was a rollercoaster of emotions and the ending left me breathless and a crying mess.
I can only say this : it was more than worth the wait and I hope that a third book with Iwata won't be long in coming !
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It’s not very often that I find myself moved when I’m reading Crime Fiction, it’s usually a rare occurrence but a totally appreciated one when it does happen and Obregon managed to touch a part of my soul with his painfully beautiful writing and stunning imagery. It was a little like reading high brow literary fiction without the pretentiousness and with way more grit.

The real appeal of this one for me was two fold, the main character, Iwata was just the kind of damaged and broken leading man that always gets under my skin and then there was the setting. When an author can make me truly feel the location they’re describing and make it a living, breathing entity I am blown away and Obregon did a phenomenal job creating a strong sense of place. It takes place mainly in LA, and this isn’t the glittering mecca we’ve all seen on TV, this is the dark underbelly, the very depths of humanity.

One last thing that made this a standout was that you can clearly see this is written by an author who is not only extremely talented, but he has a social conscience. This examines the marginalized community of transgender individuals and it was explored in a sensitive yet honest and raw manner. It was also diverse with Iwata being Japanese and I learned some interesting things about the culture and their traditions that was really cool. This whole book was just really cool, it mixed a modern vibe with current social issues with an old school noir style that is entirely the authors own.

Sins as Scarlet in three words: Intoxicating, Smooth and Sophisticated.
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Having been much impressed by Obregon’s first book, Blue Light Yokohama featuring Japanese homicide detective Kosuke Iwata, I’m delighted to report that Sins As Scarlet is even better. So much so that it has parachuted its way into my top five reads of the year so far…

Kosuke Iwata is a powerfully constructed character, shaped and formed, but with an underlying sense of self questioning, by his dual heritage and the collision of west and east  almost fighting for supremacy in his identity. He has had a troubled past in terms of his upbringing and former estrangement from his mother, and has undoubtedly been tarnished emotionally by his fraught and ultimately destructive marriage. This book effectively straddles all of these relationships, providing an offshoot of narratives concerning his mother and wife, and cleverly by what we observe of their own characteristics gives us a broader understanding of Iwata himself, as a man, a son, a husband and a father too. I felt that sometimes I was observing him through a prism when it came to his emotional and personal identity, and the only real clarity in his character came through his professional role as a private investigator. I liked the way Obregon did this, and how Iwata then became a man of contradictions, and certain notions about his morality, integrity and so on were undermined by his interactions with, and influence of, the women in his life. An extremely interesting character, beautifully rendered, but undercut with a sense of personal tragedy, and a tangible lack of belonging.

Similarly, to the first book, I admire Obregon’s willingness to tackle big issues head on, showing no fear or favour, and opening the reader’s eyes to aspects of society that some would rather ignore. I think Obregon achieves this cleverly in two ways. First the straightforward narrative of murder within the transgender community, and Iwata’s later, and harrowing, experience traversing the desert from Mexico to the USA, which neatly encompasses the experiences of two groups of people that society as a whole are prone to vilify. Secondly, through the psycho-geography element of the book, where Obregon neatly uses the course of Iwata’s investigation, to crisscross Los Angeles, taking us on a tour of myriad neighbourhoods, divided by race and social inequality that show not only the singularly unique makeup of the city, but the gritty reality behind the showbiz exterior. I found these wanderings of Iwata absolutely fascinating, and the little factual nuggets of Los Angeles  life that these give rise to, summed up by the assertion that, “Kosuke Iwata had gotten used to the staggered pockets of city that made up Los Angeles”, as his investigation becomes ever more difficult and personal.

Having become increasingly annoyed with a recent upsurge in the decrying of crime fiction as somehow inferior to ‘literary’ fiction, this is where a book such as this is worth its weight in gold. As author Jon Courtenay Grimwood commented on my social media rant on the subject saying “Crime novels specialise in asking the hard questions” and this is what Obregon deftly shows here. Sins As Scarlet is not only compelling as a thriller should be, but has layers of scrutiny and observation on the themes of race, gender roles, social division, migration and more, which makes it punchy and thought provoking, and at times exceptionally moving. Highly recommended.
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