Friday, February 03, 2012

Chinatown Mysteries: S. J. Rozan, Henry Chang, More

The wide range of international mysteries suddenly available in the US is exciting. Equally intriguing are those set in American (and other!) Chinatowns, where another "country" seems just a few blocks away. It's a good time of year to indulge in Chinatown mysteries, with the start of the Year of the (Water) Dragon just behind us, and the beginning of the Chinese astrological New Year tomorrow.

Henry Chang has staked out generous turf in New York City's Chinatown with Detective Jack Yu, in a trilogy of police detection books: Chinatown Beat, Year of the Dog, and Red Jade. In an interview with fellow mystery author J. Sydney Jones, Chang announced last year that he's now working on a sextet of Jack Yu books to follow the first three. The books are set in the 1990s, Chang's way of creating a bit of personal distance -- and also some protection against accidentally revealing a prosecutable crime, as many of the details in his books come from firsthand experience in the Chinatown neighborhoods, as well as recollections shared by retired criminals. A native New Yorker himself, Chang has an immigrant heritage and uses the tension of parental and community expectations to ramp up the pressures on the characters in his novels. I'm especially fond of Chinatown Beat, and in this trilogy, I'd advise starting from the first book; there are details in the third one, Red Jade, that make a lot more impact if you've consumed the series in order.

S. J. Rozan, whose heritage is not Chinese but who spends plenty of time in New York's Chinatown, offers a very different set of perceptions and tensions in her Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series. The most recent of these is Ghost Hero.  Chin is increasingly warm toward Smith, her detection partner and possibly, some day -- if Chin's mother can't stop it -- a more intimate partner. But there isn't much time for the two of them to connect, as they involve another Chinese-American private investigator to help them probe the complex world of modern Chinese art and high-stakes investment. Unlike Chang, Rozan sets her books very much "now" and one of the best secondary characters is Lydia Chin's cousin Linus Wong, a computer geek with both edge and (oddly) innocence. There are ten other Lydia Chin/Bill Smith books -- the series alternates in narration, from either Chin's or Smith's point of view -- and in this case, there's no need to read them in order. Jump in anywhere. My current favorites are Ghost Hero  and On the Line.

The 2010 release of a work of nonfiction by Yunte Huang, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, provoked a number of recent thoughtful investigations of American Chinese mysteries and their authors,  and Henry Chang shared with us an essay by Merle Jacob, surveying "Asian" mysteries over a wide range than extends to India and Korea as well. (Chan wasn't a Chinatown figure; that detective shows up in the 1920s books by Earl Derr Biggers, which have become very collectible.) The essay led me to pick up a crime novel by Ed Lin, Snakes Can't Run (2010) -- it's his third novel, and is the second featuring Chinese American detective Robert Chow. The Chow books are set in the 1970s in New York's Chinatown, and run dark and gritty; they're worth reading.

Finally being talked about more often are the reasons that Chinatowns exist in America, and it doesn't really boil down to "like lives with like" -- there's a nasty piece of anti-Asian bias in American history that came to a head in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, among other effects, prevented Chinese from becoming naturalized citizens. (This didn't ease until bodies were needed for World War I.) For a not-so-dark detective mystery that opens up these details a bit, there's Murder in Chinatown, one of the "Gaslight" mysteries by Victoria Thompson, set in turn-of-that-century New York.

If you have a favorite Chinatown mystery, or want to add to this list in other directions, please do leave a comment here. Meanwhile, a fortunate Chinese new year to you. Gung Hay Phat Choy!