Sunday, July 06, 2014

Henry Chang, DEATH MONEY: NYC Chinatown Series, Jack Yu

Henry Chang's Chinatown series, set mostly in New York City's Chinatown, is maturing and becoming very strong indeed. In the fourth Detective Jack Yu investigation, DEATH MONEY, Chang keeps the action focused in New York's five boroughs -- and if that seems larger than you're picturing the Chinatown influence, think again. Chang paints vividly the action of the 1990s, with its self-help and legal defense movements on one side, the dark criminality of gambling and prostitution and bribery on the other, and Jack Yu as token Chinese police detective, sent to deal with any Asian deaths that look suspicious. (The book's time period gives Chang space from his own life and from his sources, who sometimes were on the "dark side" thirty years ago but are aging retirees now.)

This time, Yu pairs the evidence, including a corpse in the river -- neatly executed with a precise cut to the heart -- with his own understanding of how the Chinese groups rub against each other and raise big money from people's urges to play, whether with numbers or games or sex. I especially appreciate the way Yu's perceptions highlight the separate factions among "the Chinese": immigrants from parts of "one country" that might as well be multiple nations, with different dialects, habits, expectations. I'm starting to tune in to my own time and place, asking, "Chinese from where?" when I meet someone new.

Chang takes a classic noir approach to his form, posing short, tight chapters that follow through on one of Jack Yu's actions or guesses. Action, threat, and the wages of curiosity push the pace. And then there's a breath, a pause, and Chang deepens the background detail, the way Yu sees the crowd at the notorious nightclub Fay Lo's:
The betting was moderate, mostly Chinese men chain-smoking around the tables. They looked like the workers he'd seen in the Golden City and China Village and in Chinatown, throwing down their tip money, the hustle pay of sweaty dollar bills, looking for the long odds -- twenty, thirty, a hundred to one.

The gang boys stood out from the civilian players. ... Swagger. Willing to fight and die for the gang family. Though it all aided law enforcement in identifying members by their gang tats and nicknames.
Yu's usual Chinese companion (on the other side, but able to keep their friendship) is still in a coma, so DEATH MONEY sees Yu tackle his assignment alone, barely accepted among the police, and taking a stand against people who connections make them powerful and strong. His only chance is to cut one out of the crowd at a time, and force the play.

Chang is clearly set for a long series at this point, well beyond the Chinatown trilogy he started with. That's good news for mystery readers, collectors, and armchair explorers alike. Oh yes, it's from Soho Crime -- thanks again, S.C. team!

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