Sunday, January 16, 2022

China Trade, a mystery by Edgar-winner S.J. Rozan

Title: China Trade
Author: S. J. Rozan
Publication: St. Martin’s, hardcover, 1994
Genre: Mystery
Setting: New York
Description: Asian-American private investigator Lydia Chin knows Chinatown because she lives there. Despite her no-nonsense demeanor, she still lives at home with her mother, respecting tradition. As an insider, she is called in when a small local museum is robbed and, in turn, Lydia asks her friend and occasional partner, Bill Smith, to help her untangle a web of local gangs and shady art dealers, both of which turn out to be extremely dangerous and unwilling to share their secrets.

My Impression: I vaguely knew this series existed and I think I was at the Edgar Awards the year the author won but (perhaps because I was going to law school at night then, which limited my reading) I had not encountered Lydia Chin until my friend Tracy of Bitter Tea and Mystery mentioned recently it was one of her all-time favorite series. This was a mistake I am glad to have remedied because I like mysteries set in New York, particularly by someone who knows and loves the different neighborhoods of the city as I do (admittedly, my knowledge of Chinatown is mostly limited to taking out of town members of my former publishing company down to Canal Street to buy pirated purses, although I always explained they should not contribute to this criminal enterprise).
A better paperback cover
Of course, I enjoyed Lydia’s dark sense of humor and banter with her fellow private eye, Bill Smith, who is romantically interested in her (she seems to feel the same way but is not ready to reciprocate). However, I particularly appreciated the juxtaposition of two worlds, the traditional Chinatown where Lydia tries to appease her mother, while pursuing dangerous gang members, and the Upper East Side of NYC where her pursuit of missing porcelain also leads her. I was reminded of the code-switching in The Hate U Give, particularly when Lydia approaches an elderly apothecary in Chinatown, respectfully calling him grandfather and allowing him to use her Chinese name, Ling Wan-ju. It is her ability to move between worlds that makes her such an intriguing heroine. Mind you, determination and insatiable curiosity are always the best qualifications for any kind of investigator:
“We really have to look into all those people, don’t we?” I said. “Nora and Tim and everybody. Just to eliminate them.”


Because any of them might have done it.”

“It’s always possible.”

“It always is, isn’t it?” I sighed. “You always have no real idea what anyone is up to. I hate that.”

“That’s why you love this job.”

I looked up, surprised. “What do you mean?”

"Because in the course of finding out what happened in whatever case you’re investigating, you get to find out what everyone is up to."

I considered that. “You’re right. Why do you suppose I want to know that?”

“I have no idea. I’ve always found knowing that kind of depressing, myself.”

We stepped from the shadow of a building into a patch of bright sunlight and I thought of the musty dimness of Dr. Browning’s living room. “But not as depressing,” I told Bill, “as being in the dark.”
Another aspect I found interesting was that because the book is written in the first person; when Lydia was attacked it felt very real and terrifying to the reader. Even Lydia who knows Tae Kwon Do is vulnerable to a hostile group and while I can enjoy an improbable scenario where a female protagonist vanquishes multiple bad guys simultaneously (hello, Jane Hawk) as much as the next person, this book had a gritty immediacy that was convincing even if I lost the thread of the actual mystery among all the characters. Finally, this book was written in 1994, and New York’s Chinatown has changed a lot in the intervening 28 years. It will be quite interesting to see how Lydia Chin’s world evolves in this series.
Source: Library, and the second book is already on its way. This is my second mystery of the year in the Cloak and Dagger Challenge hosted at Carol's Notebook.


TracyK said...

I am glad you liked this, Constance. I am going to go back and reread some of the earlier books in the series, when I can find where they are. And I have purchased the most recent one to read sometime soon. There were a few years where she did not publish any books in this series, and I am happy she is writing more books for it now.

CLM said...

I had some formatting issues and forgot to mention I liked Lydia's friend Mary Kee. Does she appear in later books?

TracyK said...

Constance, I don't remember a Mary Kee being a continuing character. But that could just be my memory, and I probably read the first 6 or 7 books around 15 years ago. The only continuing characters I remember are her family members, especially her mother.

JFreimor said...

Mary Kee is a recurring character. This is one of my favorite series of all time. 😁

TracyK said...

Well, that shows how bad my memory is, although I often have problems remembering characters.

I am glad to hear of another fan of the Lydia Chin / Bill Smith series.

CLM said...

The second in the series just came in from a library 45 minutes away. I hate it when my local branches have newish books in a series but didn't replace the early ones when they wore out. Don't they know people like me insist on reading in order?