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It’s a Mystery: “Every kidnapper who ever did a snatch says no cops!”

By (October 1, 2010) No Comment

On The Line

By S.J. Rozan
Minotaur Books, 2010

I have been a fan of S.J. Rozan’s Bill Smith/Lydia Chin novels since her debut book China Trade (1994), the first-ever mystery to feature a Chinese-American female P.I. Lydia Chin, the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, is a thoroughly modern shamus. Her “sometime” partner, Bill Smith, is white, middle-aged, athletic, ex-Navy, and he plays a mean piano. They complement each other:

Bill’s not really my partner. He’s solo p.i., a one-person shop with a varied caseload, just like me…But most cases are better if you work them in pairs, and he’s usually who I call in when I need someone. Since we met I think he’s pretty much stopped calling anybody else, too, except when he needs big muscle. I’m a good bodyguard, I’m a great shot, and I can fight; but at five-one, a hundred and ten pounds, I’m not very intimidating. When I need big muscle, I just call him.

Lydia lives in New York’s Chinatown with her very old fashioned mother who chastises her “wayward” daughter in Cantonese, the only language she deigns to speak. Mama disapproves of Smith on the grounds that he is Caucasian and, almost worse, he is responsible for her getting involved in this “detective nonsense.” (Sounds harsher in Cantonese.)

My mother’s sarcasm could cut diamonds.

The only influence stronger than a Chinese mother is an evil-intentioned man.

The Asian sleuth is hardly new. The most famous, and most enduring, is Charlie Chan. True, Lydia Chin resembles Charlie Chan about as much as James Bond resembles Miss Marple. But it’s impossible not to believe that Lydia Chin’s existence owes a debt to the “Honorable Detective.”

Actually, Chan is Mandarin Hawaiian, and he made his entrance in Earl Derr Biggers The House Without a Key (1925). It begins with an uptight matron expressing more than polite dismay that a Chinese gentleman will be handling her case. The Captain of Detectives assures her that Charlie Chan is the best detective on the Honolulu Police Force. That’s just for openers! There were six Chan novels. And, according to the film critic Richard Schickel in a recent review of a history of Chan entitled, appropriately enough, Charlie Chan:

Biggers was a good writer. He possessed a simple, straightforward prose style and a gift for patient, plausible plotting. I’ve sampled some of his novels recently and can testify that they can be read without condescension. Something similar can be said of the movies. Though inexpensively and quickly made, they were well written, sensibly directed and decently acted.

It is, of course, a given that Chan’s longevity is due to the movies, which played on television for decades. More than decently acted, first by Warner Oland and later Sidney Toler among others, his amiable good manners, sing-song pidgin English, and Confucian unraveling of each foible, theft, and murder immediately charmed audiences. His fortune cookie wisdom was completely lovable: “Smart fly keeps out of gravy.” Fairly quickly, Chan’s connection to the Honolulu P.D. became more and more nominal. He turned into an internationally acclaimed private eye, solving crimes from Berlin to Shanghai, while taming his lovable, comically excitable, thoroughly Americanized number one and two sons. (Chan was portrayed in forty-six films, never by a Chinese actor.)

Chan was the perfect rebuke to the so-called “Yellow Menace” villainy of Fu Manchu. Sax Rohmer introduced his “sinister Oriental” in a single short story “The Zayat Kiss” (1912). Within a year this “superman with a satanic heart” began to appear in novel-length works: The Mystery of Fu Manchu (1913); The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu (1916), The Return of FuManchu (1917). Then there was a Manchu hiatus while Rohmer wrote of other criminal doings. The wily doctor reappeared in Daughter of Fu Manchu (1931) (my favorite of the series) and continued through 1959 with Emperor Fu Manchu, by which time, believe it or not, he had taken on the role of an anti-Communist seeking to cleanse his homeland. In his heyday, however, Dr. Fu Manchu, a master of disguise, moved through vividly atmospheric settings ripe for his ominous schemes. It should be noted that Fu Manchu’s nemeses, Sir Denis Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard and his sidekick Dr. Petrie, have often been compared to Holmes and Watson. But then hasn’t everybody?

Which brings me to the aristocrat of inscrutability, the ingenious Judge Dee, who was created by a Dutchman, Robert Van Gulik. The Judge Dee novels, notably The Chinese Bell Murders (1958) and The Chinese Gold Murders (1961), set in the seventh century (the summer of 663 A.D. and beyond), offer a revealing lens through which to measure contemporary society. Each “Judge Dee Mystery” is based upon three original old Chinese plots, rewritten as one continuous story, centering round the historical Ti Jen-chieh (630-700), an important Chinese detective who rose to become an influential statesman in the T’ang dynasty.

The fictional Judge Dee is a charmer. A wise, witty, perceptive, cryptic, arbitrary, and ever fascinating Great Detective in the noblest tradition. While engaged in a criminal case, Judge Dee often does much of the investigation himself and frequently resorts to disguises (shades of Fu Manchu), or traveling incognito among the common people. He is a family man with three wives (the Mormons had nothing on the T’ang dynasty) and several sons who travel with him to his various outposts. They are moral support, but wise enough to leave him alone as he ponders the solution of a mystery.

S.J. Rozan; photo by Marion Ettlinger

Ethnic cops, gumshoes, or private eyes, like Chan and now Lydia Chin, can not only investigate “mainstream” society but also enter and decode a Chinatown, ghetto, barrio, tribal homeland, or particular religious community. For the most part, these communities remain closed to the non-ethnic investigators. Ethnicity, used well, calls up not just the difference of appearance but of a whole psychology derived from “other” roots and mores. Rozan, winner of a host of crime fiction awards, is very much aware of the advantages of these possibilities.

On the Line, the tenth Bill Smith/Lydia Chin novel, has been called by its author in a recent interview, “A ticking clock thriller, not a traditional detective novel.” The lady got that right. It opens with Smith getting an early morning call from Lydia:

“Hey,” I said, “What’s up?”

Silence, unlike Lydia, and an odd tone to it. Then she said, “Nothing good.”

Those two words contained darkness: anger, fear and something else. Warning? My skin went cold. “What does that mean?”

The answer didn’t come from Lydia. It came from a different voice, relaxed and mocking in rhythm, but inhuman in tone: thin, robotic. Deliberately, electronically altered. “It means, asshole, your girlfriend got jacked.”

The bottom line is, Lydia has been snatched by someone who insists that Bill follow a series of cryptic clues if he wants to see her again:

“It’s a game, get it? You find her, she lives. You don’t, she dies. You following that?”

“How am I supposed to find her?”

“Well, lucky for you, I’m going to help. Clues, evidence, all that shit. I know you like that shit. So we’ll have fun. Now get going….”Oh, hey did I mention you have twelve hours? A game’s no fun without a clock. But we don’t need no stinkin’ refs. Cops come, cops even think about coming, she’s toast.”

The desperate Bill enlists the aid of Lydia’s cousin Linus Wong who we first met in Winter and Night (2002). Wong, a crackerjack computer hacker and world class techie, operates his own e-security firm out of his folks’ garage. The motto of Wong Security is: “Protecting people like you from people like us.” Linus brings along his goth girlfriend, Trella Bartoli, a force to be reckoned with all by herself and no slouch in the techie department.

The first set of clues sends them to a defunct bar in Red Hook, where they find a dead Chinese hooker, her very live pimp, and his goons and a police cordon they manage to slip. This brings them the reluctant “assistance” of Lydia’s best friend, NYPD detective Mary Kee, who prefers to do things by the book but knows when and how to be undetectable. They grew up together and she has been there for Lydia since her first case: “I understand you have a favor to ask me,” she said knowingly in China Trade, “that will involve risking my badge, my career, and possibly my life.” Now she’s gone rogue and undercover for Bill.

After a second set of clues sends Bill to a familiar windy Manhattan rooftop, he figures out the identity of his tormentor and it propels him into an impotent rage. Confrontation leads to resentment and fury, as the fiend changes the “rules” just to keep things interesting—relentlessly bombarding Bill with deadline-juiced taunts. The tension mounts, as Bill and his sidekicks try to figure out how to get ahead of someone who holds all the high cards. Rozan doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to keeping us guessing. Her elegantly wrought, high voltage thriller reinvents the phrase heart-stopping action.

I cannot wind up a review of Rozan’s novel without talking about the sexual tension she creates between Lydia and Bill. It is no mean feat that she has managed to sustain a series revolving around a highly charismatic, flesh and blood couple who don’t get involved sexually. They constantly skirt the physical issue, so to speak, and I know it frustrates her readers. It certainly frustrates me. I was happy to learn that she recently won the anti-Edgar “Hauled Ashes Award” for “the fictional couple most in need of getting it on.” So the big question remains: will they? In one interview Rozan says, “Do I know? I’m only the writer.” In another, “In Bill’s dreams.” I could kill her. Still, I can’t wait for the next Smith/Chin novel.

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.