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Sunday, July 25, 2010

On the hunt for snakes and dragons in Chinatown


Snakes Can't Run, by Ed Lin. Minotaur Books, 2010, 288 pp., $24.99 (hardcover) City of Dragons, by Kelli Stanley. Minotaur Books, 2010, 338 pp., $24.99 (hardcover)

Two years back I reviewed "Year of the Dog," about the exploits of detective Jack Yu, the creation of Chinese-American author Henry Chang, who portrayed New York's Chinatown as a frightfully sordid place. Yu, besides being forced to endure the slings and arrows of a race- baiting police department, suffered a dysfunctional family life.

News photo

I remarked that for Chang to retain his readers, he would need to diversify his themes and "make it less painful to empathize with his protagonist." SOHO will be releasing "Red Jade," the third book in Chang's series, this November, but in the interim, I've discovered Ed Lin, who has created another, more reader-friendly Chinatown cop.

Lin's two works are set in the mid-1970s. Before joining the police, Robert Chow, the protagonist, was conscripted and served in a combat unit in Vietnam.

Along with carrying some heavy emotional baggage from his war experiences, Chow is a Chinese junk-food junkie and reformed alcoholic. He walks the walk and talks the talk of a native New Yorker, and Lin also demonstrates a talent for embellishing his prose with colorful similes.

Take this description of the graffiti-strewn New York subway: "The subway car jerked around and sometimes the lights went out. I felt like a lone crayon bouncing around inside a marked-up box."

Lin's humorous, self-deprecating first-person narrative — toned down from the freewheeling style of his first police procedural "This Is a Bust" (2007) — makes Chow a much more empathetic character than Jack Yu.

"Snakes Can't Run" isn't a classic whodunit, since Chow is much too green on the force to engage in the deductive reasoning expected of a master sleuth.

But he's a righteous cop with colleagues and friends who watch his back while he tenaciously tracks down the elusive "Brother Five," head of a human trafficking ring who's suspected of having ordered the murders of two illegal immigrants for falling behind in their payments.

By the finale, Chow inadvertently stumbles over some unpleasant aspects of his own family's history as well.

Hard-boiled babe

Novels with female detectives date back over a century. Canadian-born novelist Grant Allen (1848-1899), a contemporary of Sherlock Holmes writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, created two female detectives, one of whom was a nurse. Allen also wrote two novels under female pseudonyms.

In "City of Dragons," Kelli Stanley seeks to revive the classic San Francisco private investigator formula made famous by Dashiell Hammett's "Continental Op," but with a hard-boiled feminist spin.

As firecrackers explode to herald arrival of the lunar new year, a small-time Japanese-American hood named Eddie Takahashi collapses dead from a bullet at the feet of Miranda Corbie.

The police seem reluctant to investigate, and Corbie, who had worked as a volunteer nurse in the Spanish Civil War before returning to the United States and opening her own PI agency, begins poking around. Not long afterward an enigmatic rich woman hires Corbie to discreetly look into the suspicious death of her husband in a San Francisco hotel, and the disappearance of the couple's daughter.

How do these two events tie in? Who's behind it all? And why are the cops dragging their flat feet?

While the dialogue and descriptions in "City of Dragons" reflect thorough research, the plot strays too far from the conventions of the genre.

I suppose that, in today's world, female gumshoes can be just as fearless and tough as men; and a sensible way to avoid ethnic stereotyping is to create a potpourri of ethnicities.

But Stanley's approach seems out of sync with the spirit of 1940, when cars had running boards, men had razor nicks and women were invariably either vamps or hapless victims who played second fiddle to the male protagonist.



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