Book Review: Sins as Scarlet by Nicolás Obregón
By Dave RichardsDecember 17, 2018
Sins as Scarlet by Nicolás Obregón brings Kosuke Iwata to Los Angeles where he now works as a private detective.
Crime stories are often about metaphorical underworlds populated by hapless underdogs and vicious, powerful elites. Our tour guides on these stories are usually detectives whose quests for truth, justice, and/or vengeance force them to navigate dangerous waters and confront harsh truths about society and themselves. In his new novel, Sins as Scarlet, Nicholás Obregón takes a private detective on such a journey. The result is a tale that’s powerful, poignant and exciting.
In the novel, Obregón wades into the glitz and grime of Los Angeles. It’s a seedy underbelly that’s been probed countless times throughout history and in all manner of mediums, but the author has a firm grasp on why the City of Angels continues to be such a fascinating backdrop for crime stories. He also has a gift for bringing to life the seedier sides of the city. The novel is full of vivid descriptions like this scene where his protagonist, Kosuke Iwate, describes the things that have become commonplace living in L.A.
He had gotten used to the officer-involved shootings in Vermont Vista, in Crenshaw. The police car chases every other night. The addiction treatment centers flecked along the Pacific Coast Highway. The near-dead trickle of the Los Angeles River. Little speakeasies in Silver Lake where wannabes tried to flog screenplays to executives only interested in lines young and curved, or white and straight.
He’d gotten used to the smiling Scientologists south of Los Feliz, wearing waistcoats and slacks, like an army of flight attendants with nowhere to fly to. The infinite homeless camps over intersections, under bridges, in doorways. The convertibles revving along Rodeo Drive.
As Sins As Scarlet progresses, Obregón takes readers to a multitude of L.A.’s lurid, lavish, and lethal locales including homeless shelters, nightclubs, sex shops, and a first-class terminal at LAX. All of those settings are described with such clarity that it’s easy to imagine yourself there.
Fascinating settings need to be populated with equally compelling characters, and in Sins as Scarlet, Obregón introduces readers to an eclectic cast of characters trying to find their place in the world or using what power they have to indulge in their base and violent instincts. The book’s protagonist is a private detective named Kosuke Iwata, a Japanese born naturalized American citizen who recently returned to the U.S.A after years of living abroad in the country of his birth.
Obregón’s first novel, Blue Light Yokohoma, formally introduced readers to Iwata and depicted his time as a police inspector in Tokyo, but new readers won’t feel lost. The author includes a number of flashback moments to Iwata’s life in Japan that illuminate the tragic reasons why he came back to the U.S.A.
Iwata’s tragic past makes him an interesting character, but what makes him a memorable detective is his drive, where it comes from, and what it leads him to do. Early on in Sins as Scarlet, Obregón describes Iwata’s passion for mysteries in the following way:
Iwata did not particularly enjoy his job, but he did like solving puzzles, even rudimentary ones. His was the business of lives changing, the cataclysm of the truth for money. But it was never personal. Kosuke Iwata didn’t do personal.
That vow against personal cases doesn’t last long because Iwata’s client is a woman with a tragic connection to him and she tasks the detective with finding the killer of her transgendered daughter. It’s a case that takes him through the underbelly of L.A., and in the second half of the book, across the border into a drug-ravaged Mexican city, and then out into the desolate desert wastelands of the Mexican-American border. It also brings Iwata face to face with a number of characters, who like himself are outcasts with feet in multiple worlds but don’t feel at home in any of them.
My favorite outcasted supporting character is Constantin Valentin: a cop who is caught between the corruption and idealism of police work in a drug cartel controlled town and is trying to make the most of what little time she has left:
It had started with vomiting. Trouble swallowing. White patches on her gums. She ignored it, but the work medical had been unavoidable. The test results had no interest in her career. The old man would be her last case and Velasco’s first. That was life, inauspicious beginnings, inauspicious endings.
Iwata’s encounters with Valentin and the novel’s other colorful cast lead to some shocking revelations about the mystery he’s been hired to solve and his own past. I don’t want to say too much, but these twists are organic and some come from flashback scenes to the life Iwata’s mother lead in Japan. These flashbacks initially tried my patience because they felt like they were part of a different story. Later on, though, you see how they fit and understand how important they are to Iwata’s overall story.
Iwata’s arc, and his exciting journey through the underworlds of L.A. And Mexico made Sins as Scarlet a terrific and moving read. Obregón has crafted a truly special crime story that manages to feel both classic and contemporary at the same time.