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Sunday, July 20, 2008

A tease stripped of credulity in Chicago's Little Vietnam

THE LAST STRIPTEASE, by Michael Wiley. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007, 245 pp., $23.95 (cloth)

In this novel, winner of last year's Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin's Press Best First Private-Eye Novel Contest, Chicago private investigator Joe Kozmarski is retained by an ex-judge to clear a man who's suspected of murdering a young woman from Chicago's Little Vietnam.

The money's too good to refuse, but the PI takes the job with understandable reluctance; the very same judge had destroyed the career of Kozmarski's policeman father.

The victim, Le Thi Hanh, aka Hannah Le, was found in an airport hotel room with her throat slashed. The main suspect, an old friend of Kozmarski from the 'hood, has gone into hiding.

The book's dust jacket blurb had me expecting something that would delve into the sociology, politics and crime of America's transplanted Asian communities, as did such works as "Little Saigon" (1988) by T. Jefferson Parker, set in Orange Country, California, or "Walking Shadow" (1994) by Robert B. Parker, which takes place in a Massachusetts waterfront town.

But the blurb notwithstanding, any references to immigrant experience are barely apparent. The victim's estrangement from her family due to her modern versus their traditional views is raised once when the detective questions one of the victim's brothers:

"If you don't stay near home and help run the store, you don't get to be part of the family?''

He nodded, as if this was logical. "That's pretty much it, yeah.''

Hannah — who's already dead before the story begins — is by far the book's most interesting character, a femme fatale whose own death sets off a string of fatalities. She's described as beautiful and promiscuous to the point of being self-destructive, on the road to stardom in porno films at the time she was murdered. Her ethnic background may appeal to male readers drawn to a sultry Asian vamp, but the story provides no insights or explanations as to why not only Hannah, but her three brothers, all have rather dysfunctional personalities.

The "Last Striptease" starts well, pulling the reader in with potential for a provocative whodunit. But aside from his dogged determination, Wiley's PI character has few appealing traits, and the narrative starts to sputter like its protagonist's beat-up Buick. It finally descends into an excess of gratuitous violence. His teaming up with a female police investigator and the melodramatic cliffhanger climax pushes the reader's credulity over the edge. As a B-movie plot, it might work. As a whodunit, it disappoints.

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