Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Henry Chang, RED JADE: Taking the Simple Out of Crime

The call that wakes NYPD Detective Jack Yu seems like a simple case of mild political pull: A Chinatown group that's helped the police force (yes, donations) wants a Chinese cop on the scene to investigate a murder-suicide of a young couple. Jack might wish his connections in Brooklyn held him close to his new home, but it's the old one in the Ninth Precinct that keeps pulling him back.

RED JADE is the third book from Henry Chang, an American with Chinese heritage, raised in New York's Chinatown (and still living there). Chinatown Beat and Year of the Dog preceded this one; together, they make up Chang's Chinatown Trilogy, but RED JADE doesn't tie off all the strands Chang has juggled through the series. The opening crime of the book makes it clear that Detective Yu is webbed and tied to his cityscape, where the echoes of his life resonate among the echoes of multiple Chinese cultures. Yes, multiple ... Chang's books make it clear that "Chinese" is a gathering term for Fukienese, Toishanese, people of backgrounds that vary as much as a Tennessee crowd varies from a Minnesota one. And Jack Yu's life is embedded with all of these. A mere twelve minutes in a Chinese car service takes him from his Brooklyn home to the crime scene at Seven Doyers:
Jack knew the street well; it was around the corner from where he'd grown up, where his pa had passed away recently. And around the corner from where his former blood brother Tat "Lucky" Louise had met his fate: shot in the head, he was now comatose at Downtown Hospital.
And the street is in the territory of the Ghost Legion gang. So it's almost a letdown when Jack discovers almost immediately that the crime is an open-and-shut case: a depressed young mother, separated from her husband and children, trying to leave her marriage, killed by her despondent husband who can't take the shame of her departure. He even writes a poem to explain himself, before shooting her and then himself:
Black Clouds
have covered the sky
like ink.
The whirlwind
sweeps in
from the rivers.
Even the air itself
Is frozen.

A growing sorrow
I cannot bear.
All this sorrow and shame is good grounding, though, for Jack's deepening understanding of why the crimes he's investigated in the two preceding rounds haven't resolved: Fat Uncle Four's mistress Mona, an expert at inciting crime, has shamed too many powerful people. To catch up with her, and confront the forces of East Coast and West Coast Chinatowns and even mainland China chasing her, Jack launches his own cross-country chase -- one that just happens to dovetail with the movements of a woman prosecutor who interests him personally, Alexandra Lee-Chow. And whether the two of them can ever connect across their professions and especially across Jack's stockpiled caution and reserve ... well, that's looking as chancy as the possibility of catching Mona before her carefully planned luck (as rich as the luck of red jade) carries her away.

Chang's third volume challenges recent conventions of police procedurals, because (1) Jack's major detective efforts take place far from his own turf, (2) there's a huge amount of luck and feng shui involved in the arrangement of the book's components, and (3) much of the book is presented in very short segments of a page or two, with multiple points of view. It won't suit every taste. But it's highly effective in portraying the jagged fragments of Chinese heritage that make up the mosaic -- or even kaleidoscope -- of Detective Yu's motivations.

Red Jade Bracelet
A splash of triumph at the finale mingles with the dark tones of Tat Louie's continued coma and the ripples of malice and threat expanding from Mona's struggles to escape her destiny. Jack Yu's career in criminal detection seems likely to continue beyond Chang's original trilogy -- but now is a good time to make sure you've got all three books. I'm re-reading them; the presence of the Chinese-become-Americans is finally emerging from the shadows in a torrent of recent fiction as well as memoir, and these will stay on my shelf.

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