Fast's Zen meditation and the Masao Masuto series
Andrew Macdonald, Howard Fast: A Critical Companion, pp 31-33
... Although the California years were clearly enjoyable and stimulating at the time, Fast recently remarked that he has never missed the West Coast because the California he knew then is dead and gone; in fact, every time he has visited there since leaving, he has disliked it more, a result of overpopulation, pollution, and a rape of the natural beauty and purity that attracted people there in the first place. But one influence has remained with Fast, and it is related to his split with the party: the influence of Zen Buddhism.
After rejecting communism, Fast studied Zen formally for eight years. That philosophy, of course, is not necessarily related to a particular place, but the Masao Masuto books illustrate the connection of the discipline with California. Fast calls his study "very important" even now, living long after in the environs of New York City. Zen provides a context for the moral issues that have consumed Fast's attention all his life. Also, Zen stresses a form of unconventionality the student of Zen is not allowed to give an expected or conventional answer to an assigned koan, or puzzle that is an obvious Fast characteristic. But Fast stresses that after living much of his adult life with the socialist framework providing direction and answers to the puzzling questions of existence, one does not simply give it over and move on easily. Zen provided an "ability to focus, to center ... [his] life" that was invaluable then, in the difficult years after the party, and now. Fast clearly still believes in the humanist principles that underlie a good deal of socialist thought, but the loss of party discipline and structure must have involved a true crisis for a writer fond of clarity and order. Zen provided such a focus, and we may not be reading too much into the Masao Masuto books if we think of both their hero (a lean, six-foot-tall Nisei attached to the Beverly Hills Police Department) and their author as outsiders, somewhat alienated by perspective from the majority culture in which they must operate, but finding their center through Zen meditation.
Masuto, like Fast, finds in the Zen meditative philosophy the calm, the self-assurance, and the introspective insights necessary to carry out his work, and, again like Fast, he empathizes with the common worker, despite the wealthy environment in which he works. Like Fast, Masuto cultivates the yin and the yang, loves roses and the exquisite calm of the tea ceremony, and has fond memories of the peaceful and productive farm life of the San Fernando of bygone years, the romantic agrarianism that runs through so many of Fast's books. Like his creator, Masuto has an American maverick streak beneath his surface Zen serenity: his independent thinking and contempt for overbearing authority. Reflecting his creator, Masuto says, "I try not to respond to fools (The Case of the Russian Diplomat 65). Masuto speaks Spanish as well as Japanese (Fast does not), and he sometimes faces cruel taunts about his nisei heritage, but just as Fast survived similar attacks because of his Jewish background, he has learned to cope with the crass lifestyles and acid tongues of southern Californians.
Fast says that he enjoyed writing the Masuto detective novels because the use of a pseudonym (E. V. Cunningham, a name suggested by his agent, Paul Reynolds) gave him a sense of freedom that allowed him to toy with ideas for pleasure and to write in a style and with a focus quite different from what he had done before; he describes the experience as "captivating" and his results "half-serious." He could have his hero share his pet peeves (for instance, California funeral homes in The Case of the Murdered Mackenzie), battle his favorite villains (the S.S. in The Case of the One-Penny Orange, former Nazis in The Case of the Russian Diplomat, and the CIA, which fixes evidence and phony charges and condones double murder, in The Case of the Murdered Mackenzie), and reflect values dear to him, including a deep distrust of any group that tries to repress the individual, force the human into mechanical categories, or deny genuine emotion.
The detective hero Masuto combines Buddhist meditation with Holmesian ratiocination to make intuitive leaps of both reason and imagination that leave his colleagues and superiors puzzling over the assumptions that further investigation, physical evidence, and testimony confirm. The close observation that allows the Buddhist in Masuto to see beauty where others see ugliness also allows him to see the mundane, the corrupt, and the repulsive behind the beautiful facade of Beverly Hills. These stories look at the wealthy California scene from the perspective of an outsider, racially, culturally, and economically. Masuto can bring Asian perceptions to unraveling the mysteries of his adopted community and counters the mainstream disintegration of family values with his own deep-seated commitment to home and family. His son and daughter are quiet, obedient, and respectful, and his Japanese-American wife, Kati, though at times truly Californian (she participates in consciousness-raising sessions), observes traditional Japanese customs and rituals (providing hot baths, fine cuisine, and soothing solace) to help him recuperate from the conflicts of his job.
Fast's mystery plots, which occupied his thoughts throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, are amusing puzzles, but they have political undercurrents. In The Case of the One-Penny Orange, for example, Masuto penetrates the link between seemingly unconnected events (a local burglary, a murdered stamp dealer, and a missing S.S. commander) with an 1847 Mauritius one-penny stamp worth half a million dollars and a revenge ritual that originated in the bitterness of the Holocaust, while in The Case of the Russian Diplomat, fascistic Arab and East German terrorists assassinate a Russian diplomat and plan to sabotage an airplane full of Soviet agronomists, all to undermine the Jewish Defense League. In The Case of the Sliding Pool, powerful financial and industrial speculators play games with people's lives, impede Masuto's investigation, and break rules with impunity, while The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs explores the uglier costs of wealth in marriage and divorce. Fast's Masuto believes that crime encapsulates the general illnesses of humanity and is an affront to human dignity and conscience. A Buddhist involved with humanity but faced with the materialism, corruption, and inhumanity of the Beverly Hills rich, he must constantly battle external political pressure to limit or even end his investigation and the internal hatred that discovering evil makes him feel. His family is vital to providing the moral and emotional foundation necessary for Masuto to carry on in a society and culture that attacks his values.