An Appreciation of S.J. Rozan
Reflecting the Sky, St. Martin's Minotaur, $6.50; Winter and Night, St. Martin's Minotaur, $6.99 and The Shanghai Moon, $24.95.
S.J. Rozan has one of the more impressive records in mystery fiction—she's won the Anthony, Macavity, Shamus, Nero, and the big Kahuna, the Edgar. Her books are straight up P.I. novels—with a twist. I think if you read mysteries at all and are fond of the P.I. genre, you're familiar with Rozan's dual narrators, who alternate from book to book. It gives her series a freshness and originality that make it distinct from other P.I. series books out there, though the books certainly owe a debt to books by, say, Robert B. Parker, Marcia Muller, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. Since Grafton, Muller and Paretsky took ownership of the feminine point of view, Rozan's made her own point of view striking by having one of her narrators, Lydia Chin, be a young Chinese woman, and the other narrator, Bill Smith, be a more typical male P.I., though like Spencer he has a softer side. His anger issues are more similar to someone like Dave Robicheaux. Lydia mostly keeps him in line, but both their male/female and Chinese/American dynamic keep things interesting. There's no settling for these two. Bill is more laconic; Lydia paces. Lydia drinks tea, Bill drinks coffee—and he drinks and smokes, like any American P.I. worth his salt.
In two examples, Reflecting the Sky, a Lydia Chin novel, and Winter and Night, a Bill Smith novel, Rozan brilliantly showcases what she can do, though her writing is so assured, her storytelling skills so crisp, you're just along for the delightful ride. In both books, the characters are taken far out of their comfort zones, on literal as well as emotional journeys. In Reflecting the Sky Lydia is asked by her "Grandfather" Gao to perform a simple task: go to Hong Kong with a piece of jade for his recently deceased friend's grandson; and take his friend's ashes to China, where he wanted to spend eternity. As it turns out the dead man, Mr. Wei, who lived a typical American suburban life, also had a more traditional Chinese family. Because his import/export business allowed him to travel, he was able to keep the secret until his death.
When Lydia and Bill arrive Hong Kong seems overwhelming to Lydia—it's huge, crowded and the constantly rushing crowds of people have her in a dither before she even begins to complete her first task, delivering the jade. This proves impossible, as when Lydia and Bill arrive at the apartment of Mr. Wei's Hong Kong son Steven, they find that Steven's son Harry has been kidnapped.
Any P.I. novel mainly has the invesstigator going from source to source, asking questions, and if they're any good at all, getting beaten up themselves. This, of course, is exactly what Lydia and Bill do. Though the family doesn't want the police involved—in Hong Kong, it's not typical for the police to be involved in a "straightforward" kidnaping—never the less, the police do become involved in the person of one Mark Quan, a Hong Kong cop who grew up in America, and who also knows Grandfather Gao. As the action becomes tighter and the search for the boy more complex, Rozan keeps the action nicely balanced with Lydia's emotional journey through Hong Kong. The exotic setting almost becomes one of the characters—the heat, the crowds, the skinny high rises with the plumbing on the outside—you're really with Lydia on her journey.
Winter and Night takes place in the more prosaic location of Warrenstown, New Jersey; Bill is reluctantly forced to confront a sister he hasn't seen in years when the cops call him out of the blue about a Gary Russell, his nephew. He goes to get Gary at the police station—he'd been found rolling a drunk, though they really have nothing to hold him on—and Bill takes him to his apartment to give him a meal. After they talk and Gary goes to bed, he actually jumps out the window; he'd told his uncle he had "something important" to take care of. Bill goes to Warrenstown to talk to his sister—his brother in law hates him, but she's desperate—and finding a way into the Warrenstown culture isn't easy. Cool Lydia is his secret weapon around town. The police quickly warn him off, especially after he finds a body, but Lydia is able to move around undetected.
The way into Warrenstown, it turns out, is football, and the death Bill stumbled on bears a resemblance to a twenty year old crime. The more Bill is convinced, the more everyone in town tells him he's wrong. Of course the desire to find his nephew drives him through it; Rozan is able to weave a satisfying and emotionally complicated story around a familiar tale of jock superiority. It's exaggerated but believable to anyone who wasn't on the football team—or a cheerleader—in high school. When the story is ultimately wrapped up it's not without tragedy, but it's not without catharsis either.
Bill's anger in this book has put some distance between him and Lydia, and it's why I'm so eager to read the new novel—the first in seven years—to feature Lydia Chin, and to find out the state of the friendship (or is it more?) between Lydia and Bill. They're a pretty addictive pair, and thanks to some great writing, one of the more well rounded in mystery fiction. If you've never read Rozan before, you're in for a treat; if you have, you're probably as eager for The Shanghai Moon as I am.
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