December 6, 1941. Sam Sumida sits in a darkened theatre watching The Maltese Falcon. He takes in all of Humphrey Bogart’s mannerisms as a private detective. Sumida’s knuckles whiten as the actor shows off his information hunting chops and tough guy attitude, and he has a good reason to be studying him closely.
‘Woman with a Blue Pencil’ is available through Amazon for $15. ISBN: 1633880885
Not long ago, Sumida’s wife was found dead. Kyoko had been dumped into the ocean and washed ashore. Cause of death: a gunshot wound to the head. Sumida went to the police, but they weren’t much help. Instead of leaving the case cold, he quit his job as a professor to find the man who took his wife away.
But little does Sumida know that the killer is someone very close to the case and he would have been able to crack the case if his story hadn’t been abruptly brought to a halt.
Above is the manuscript Maxine Wakefield, an associate editor of the Metropolitan Modern Mysteries Inc., received from one Takumi Sato, a Japanese-American author looking to break into the detective novel scene.
Since the events of Pearl Harbor, Wakefield’s come to the conclusion that a detective novel with a Japanese protagonist at the helm would be impossible to publish. The American public wouldn’t take kindly to a novel where a Japanese hero hunts down a Caucasian killer.
The editor asks Sato for a rewrite. Maybe he could use his Japanese heritage to write about the secret spy rings around the West coast that everyone knows exist. People could sympathize with an “Oriental” detective of almost any origin other than Japanese.
Thus Jimmy Park, a Korean-American private detective is born, but the original story of the Japanese-American isn’t forgotten. Interspersed between this new story created by Sato is the original manuscript, but Sam Sumida soon realizes that the world has forgotten who he is.
There’s no record of his birth, of his wife’s death, nor of his existence at all. He’s displaced. Now he has to fight against the racist American public following the attacks on Pearl Harbor and solve the mystery of his wife’s death.
The constantly shifting storytelling in author Gordon McAlpine‘s mystery novel is certain to cause a little confusion at first, but this feeling works with Sumida’s out of place predicament.
Much like the book’s fictional author Takumi Sato, Sumida’s life ended with the bombing of Pearl Harbour. No longer is he able to be the protagonist of his story much like how Sato’s family had their freedoms stripped when shipped off to internment camps.
McAlpine masterfully interweaves both stories, but ties them together through Sato and Wakefield’s correspondences.
In many ways, Wakefield is the story’s true antagonist. Her blue pencil’s revisions take out anything that could be seen as “anti-American” in Sato’s writing, but what that amounts to is taking out the Japanese protagonist altogether. She also expunges any reference to Sato forcing him to take on a pen name in order to be published. She even manipulates the young author emotionally, and although we don’t get to see his responses his feelings appear in the original manuscript.
Sumida’s character is a loyal American-born citizen. Even when faced with the racism around him, he tries to ignore it. When confronted by the only man in the world who seems to know who he is, Henry Czernicek, a racist detective who helped him on the case of his dead wife, he displays the utmost patience.
In Sumida, we see Sato’s true feelings of his real-life predicament through the internment. The loss of self, of ownership of one’s destiny in such a sudden turn of events is a mystery to him. How could he have been betrayed like this? He’s American.
McAlpine’s novel is an intriguing tale, one that’s able to spin multiple yarns and somehow ties them all together in the story of an author struggling against the tides of change.