Sunday, October 09, 2016

If You Can't Visit Taiwan Yourself, Pick Up INCENSED from Ed Lin

Native New Yorker Ed Lin is of both Taiwanese and Chinese descent. His first series of crime novels was set in Manhattan, and it was good. But the newest series, starting with Ghost Month and now INCENSED, is set in Taiwan -- and it's even better.

Jing-nan has his own restaurant stall in Taipei's Night Market, and with his sense of excellent cuisine (even if simple in concept) and dramatic presentation, he's making an excellent living for himself and his kitchen partners. And he's entirely part of this local culture, even if he does pull on an alter ego he calls "Johnny" when he's doing American-style pandering to customers.

So as the Mid-Autumn Festival arrives, Jing-nan is just as committed to reconnecting with family and prioritizing those relationships as anyone else around him, even though he has a bit of time in America in his own past. When his uncle Big Eye, a criminal sort, seeks his help with 16-year-old Mei-ling, a rebellious daughter (and Jing-nan's cousin), he can't really say no ... and Big Eye has ways to make sure of that!

But Mei-ling's got her own agenda, and when Jing-nan thinks he's got her tidily installed in a job and apartment, he's kidding himself. Soon he's involved in a series of crime-related capers that reveal to him more of his uncle's way of life (and family debts) than he ever wanted to know about.

Nor is his own life a quiet peaceful one lately, considering what his girlfriend Nancy is up to:
When my cousin excused herself "to go piss," I told Nancy about my gangster uncle, the gambling den in the sugarcane field, the shootout and the crazy temple. She told me that she had joined a protest group that was going to storm a government building and occupy the space.

We were each surprised the other wasn't.

When we hit the street the full weight of my exhaustion fell upon me. I staggered to the MRT subway system while Nancy escorted Mei-ling back to her apartment. From there Nancy would walk south through Da'an Park to the university and go on plotting revolution.
As social revolution, teen rebellion, and gangster craziness spin together, Jing-nan's life takes a risky series of racing jumps and twists.

It's all fun, and a great way to get a taste of Taiwan from the inside. My one hang-up about the book was in terms of Lin's choice to write the narrative as if it were being translated -- slightly stilted with a choppy feel to it. I'm betting this American-born author's spoken English is a lot more fluid, and that this is a literary device to pull the story out of New York and over to Taiwan. It works -- but it's an acquired taste, and you may need to bear with it for a while, until the plot thickens and the pages turn on their own. Fun reading, and a great journey into international mystery -- from Soho Crime, of course!

PS: Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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