Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Many large cities have smaller communities within them, and those can be very effective contexts for a crime novel. They give the reader insight into a different culture, and their location within a larger city allows the author some flexibility. To show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight today on S.J. Rozan’s China Trade, the first in her Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series.
Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by Lydia Chin, the American version of her name, is an American-born Chinese PI, who lives and works in New York City’s Chinatown. One day she gets a call from Nora Yin, who is with Chinatown Pride (CP), a new museum. The museum has recently gotten a very generous donation of a collection of valuable porcelains from the widow of Hamilton Blair, a wealthy private collector. Two boxes of the collection have been stolen from the museum’s basement, and the CP’s Board of Directors doesn’t want the case handled publicly. If word gets around of the robbery, as it’s sure to do in Chinatown, the museum risks losing its reputation. So it’s decided to hire a private investigator. Chin is the natural choice, since her brother Tien Hua ‘Tim’ is CP’s attorney.
Chin decides to work with a colleague, Bill Smith, who’s a PI in his own right. Together, they begin to look into the case. At first there’s not much to go on, as very few people even know the museum had the collection. But there is one possibility. One of the facts of life in Chinatown is that businesses often pay ‘lucky money’ to the local gangs; in this case, the gang is the Golden Dragons. If a business refuses to pay, the consequences can be terrible, and most businesses comply. But if the museum didn’t, it’s possible that the Golden Dragons are responsible for the theft.
When Chin and Smith look into that though, they find out something surprising. The Golden Dragons ‘rent’ a few blocks of their territory to the Main Street Boys. So it’s quite possible that one of that gang could have stolen the porcelains too.
Another possibility is that one of the people who did know about the collection stole (or arranged to have stolen) the missing boxes. Chin doesn’t want to think that of, especially, her friend Nora. But she can’t assume anything in this case. So although she’s reluctant, she and Smith also investigate those closest to the collection.
Then there’s a murder. On the surface of it, it looks like a gang-related killing, and not relevant to the theft case. But Chin’s fairly certain the two incidents are connected. And then there’s another murder, this time at a local museum. And as Chin and Smith get closer and closer to the truth about the theft and killings, they become very likely targets themselves. Now they’ll have to find and catch the person behind it all before that happens.
This is a PI novel, so readers follow along as Chin and Smith talk to people, find out what they can from contacts and so on. Chin has been a PI for six years, and Smith for much longer, so they’re both experienced enough to know what PIs can and can’t do. Readers who are tired of the ‘maverick’ PI who plays superhero will be pleased to know that that doesn’t happen here. In fact, Chin works with her best friend Mary Kee, a police officer, on part of the case.
Fans of this series will know that some of the novels are told from Chin’s perspective, and some from Smith’s. This novel tells the story from Chin’s point of view, so we learn quite a lot about her. She is the daughter of a traditional Chinese family (all of whom, by the way, strongly disapprove of her choice of occupation), and although she’s lived all her life in New York City, she is as Chinese as she is American. In fact, she’s multilingual, speaking most fluently Cantonese and English. The fact that Chin is comfortable in both cultures is part of what can make her life challenging, since her mother in particular would like her to settle down, find a Chinese man, and live a Chinese life, like a proper daughter.
Because of Chin’s background, we also learn a great deal about the Chinese-American culture, and about some Chinese traditions that have endured in modern Chinatowns. Although this particular Chinatown is in New York City, it’s a very distinctive community, and Rozan provides a great deal of context in terms of culture, medicine, daily life and so on.
Bill Smith is the other PI who features prominently in this novel, and we learn a bit about him too. He was raised in a military family, and doesn’t really have deep roots anywhere. He’s not a ‘Rambo’ type of PI, though. In fact, he’s thoughtful and reflective, where Chin is sometimes not.
Their relationship forms another element in this novel. Chin is content to have Smith as a friend and colleague; Smith would like more. He makes that clear, but readers who dislike the ‘will they/won’t they’ plot point in novels need not fear. Chin’s not cloyingly coy and Smith behaves professionally. Fans of this series will know what happens to them as the series goes on; I won’t spoil things for those not familiar with the stories.
This isn’t a light, ‘frothy’ novel. In fact, the murders and the story behind the theft are very sad. And although we learn what happened and why, that doesn’t make things all better again. That said though, readers who prefer dark, noir PI novels will notice that this one doesn’t get overly bleak. In fact in some places there’s light touch of wit. In one scene, for instance, Chin is preparing to meet Kee at a restaurant:
‘Mary and I spent innumerable hours in Reggio’s in high school, before we were old enough to hang around in bars and drink, and many more while I was in college and she was in the Academy, after we had discovered that, like a lot of Asians, neither of us can drink anyway.’
Readers who are tired of drunken PIs who have no family life will be pleased to know that Chin is neither a drinker nor a ‘loner.’
There is violence in the novel (how can there not be when a PI gets mixed up in a case where people do not want the truth known, and where two murders occur?). But it is not graphic, nor is it extended. And I can say without spoiling the story that Rozan does not gloss over the impact of violence on the people most closely affected by it.
China Trade is a distinctly Chinatown PI story that introduces a sleuth who fits in there. It provides background on a unique culture and on the ‘museum piece’ trade, and features a mystery that makes sense given that background and the people involved. But what’s your view? Have you read China Trade? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight:
Monday 23 February/Tuesday 25 February – A Nice Quiet Holiday – Aditya Sudarshan
Monday 3 March/Tuesday 4 March – The Divided Child – Ekaterine Nikas
Monday 10 March/Tuesday 11 March – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Alan Bradley