SECOND OPINION: Sins as Scarlet by Nicolás Obregón

Review published on August 7, 2018.

This is my idea of an ideal beach read. Sins as Scarlet is a chunky novel, and even though there’s a serious theme at its heart, Obregon has an easy readable style. This is dark territory but honestly it’s not that heavy on the noir. It’s not a novel to over think it, just enjoy the emotional ride. I couldn’t help comparing Sins as Scarlet with the first Iwata novel, Blue Light Yokohama. That’s a mistake because although it’s the same central character, it’s very different. Obregon has ambitiously decided to take Iwata away from familiar ground (his location, his job, his relationships in Japan) and set the story in a new environment (California). As a consequence, Sins as Scarlet suffers a bit from that ‘difficult second album syndrome’, not that it’s bad, on the contrary, it’s a very decent thriller, with a strong pace but it needs to re-establish Iwata (only the guilt of his past life, the weight of history accompany him). Blue Light Yokohama was a fizzing page turner (complex and challenging). A genuinely original and exciting read. Sins as Scarlet doesn’t have the same intensity or energy but it is nonetheless an absorbing story; it’s part lone wolf hunt and part psychological thriller (the better part). All round, the idea of relocating Iwata to the United States is something you have to come to terms with but the move to a more familiar thriller location and theme make it less outstanding.

In Blue Light Yokohama Inspector Iwata investigated the brutal murder of a Korean family in their own home in broad daylight in Tokyo. The first detective in charge of the case had committed suicide before Iwata took over. Iwata caught the killer but case nearly cost him his life. As Sins as Scarlet opens, Iwata has left the Tokyo police and returned to California, where his mother lives. Its an attempt to put the past behind him. Iwata left his wife on life support in Japan; she has since died. Now his life is pretty miserable. He handles petty dead-end cases and fends off an old man who wants him to find Osama Bin Laden (he doesn’t believe he was killed in Pakistan). His latest case is a slam dunk, Kate Floccari wants to know if her husband is cheating on her – he is! Anthony is sleeping with one of his students, Anya. Iwata is in a rut, he needs a real case.

Sins as Scarlet actually opens on a cold night at the American-Mexico border. Two US Border Patrol officers chase down Evelyn as she desperately flees across the desert, seeking the river and a way back across the border. Sadly, it’s still a mile away and they have a truck. When they catch her they want the guy who helped her cross. When Evelyn won’t say, they kill her.

A real case comes when Charlotte Nichol, Iwata’s former mother-in-law, turns up. She hates Iwata for what happened to her daughter, she’s not in the mood for forgiveness. Her son, Julian, was killed a couple of weeks ago and she wants Iwata to investigate. He owes her that, he knows it and so does she. Charlotte says the detective on the case is a waste of space (something Iwata quickly finds out for himself). Julian had actually become Meredith, a transgender prostitute, maybe a junkie. Her body turned up on the rail tracks. Iwata tracks the people in Meredith’s life, its not easy, her boyfriend Talky is also dead. Eventually, Iwata discovers that there are other missing women no one seems to care about. The hunt leads to Mexico, where Iwata’s desire to find out what happened to Meredith lead him into a world of trouble and pain.

The key to the novel and the best feature of the story is the central character, Iwata. It’s his motivation that drives the story. He’s about to put himself through hell to get answers for Charlotte about her dead child, to atone for the death of his wife. It explains why he keeps going when others would have given up a long time ago. His perseverance and tenacity are the most gripping aspects of the story. It’s Iwata caring that makes the tragedy of the missing and dead women more poignant.

Sins as Scarlet manages to convey a deep sense of sadness at the abuse, corruption and exploitation in this tale. I liked the way Obregon cleverly uses billboards and posters in the background to help set the mood and to give a flavour of the location. This for example in LA:

“BLACK GAY MEN MATTER TO GOD.”

And this crass job advertisement out on the road south to the border:

“- US BORDER PATROL –
YOUR CAREER IN BORDERS. YOUR CAREER
WITHOUT BOUNDARIES.”

If it’s real you have to wonder what genius came up with that gem?

Although I admired this novel less than the first, it’s very readable and entertaining. I am sure Iwata will grow as the series develops.

Paul Burke 4/3

Sins as Scarlet by Nicolás Obregón
Michael Joseph 9780718184056 hbk Jul 2018

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