Jing-nan, an amiable young man with a strong business drive, runs his dynamic and carefully balanced food stand in a sort of late-hours-only food court in Taipei, Taiwan. He's dead serious about the quality of food he serves, and ponders ways to add interest and excitement to the menu without losing the solid "Yelp" type following he already has among American tourists. His thinking on creating a vegetarian item from a new kind of fruit he finds on sale is downright intriguing (it almost sent me to the kitchen).
But what really counts with Jing-nan is loyalty to his friends. Even when his life is in danger.
So when his former classmate Peggy Lee phones him in tears, even though he has customers queuing at the stand, he's there for her -- although it's hard to understand what's up, between her sobs and the fact that her powerful father (who happens to be Jing-nan's landlord) could not possibly be the victim of a crime. Could he? Fortunately, the two other worked in the stand -- whose ethnicity will soon be significant! -- pick up on the crisis and give Jing-nan room to listen.
I fully turned my attention back to my old classmate. Her sobs had decreased in volume and frequency. Maybe she could talk now.And that, actually, could be a problem for Jing-nan if he gives in and tackles trying to rescue Peggy Lee's dad ... because no matter the risks involved, Peggy will feel they are justified, and won't care if Jing-nan's injured or killed in the process!
"Peggy," I said as I looked to the wall. "I want to make sure I heard you right. You said your father was kidnapped?"
"Yes," she managed to say. Peggy Lee, who would be nonchalant while standing on a cliff that was crumbling beneath her feet, was having difficulty verbalizing a single syllable. She must love her father more than anything.
Fortunately, Jing-nan's girlfriend Nancy offers some counterweight to this tendency of Peggy's. But the kidnapping turns out to involve gangs, money, business ... and the politics of Taiwan, which holds a very uncomfortable position in terms of mainland China. And oh yes, since it's Peggy Lee's family at stake, this will be a media circus as well.
Lin's plotting has tightened over his career, and he's now adept in twisting his crime fiction in marvelous ways that incorporate almost as much humor (in mystery, we call it "capers") as the master Donald E. Westlake -- while winding into the plot the tensions of native, aboriginal, mainland, island, in lively and quickly grasped strands of added tension. Best of all are his characters: I wished Jing-nan and Nancy lived a lot closer (although I don't think I'd want to have a lot to do with Jing-nan's employees, whose skills extend beyond the kitchen in somewhat scary ways).
I enjoyed book 2 in this series, Incensed, almost as much. Although there's no need to read the earlier books before 99 WAYS TO DIE, it's a lot of fun to catch up with Lin's narratives, and I think I'll add number 1, Ghost Month, to my shelf, for the pleasure of such good reading.
Published by Soho Crime, an imprint of Soho Press, which continues to gather great additions to international crime fiction.
PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.