I like Jack Yu, and I feel a little bad about the short shrift he's going to get from Crime Pays. Yu is the protagonist of Death Money (2014, Soho Press), the fourth in Henry Chang's series about a Chinese-American cop in New Yawk City, AND the most recent shipment from Soho Press Crime Club.
I was looking forward to this - Chinese-based detective stories usually feature some good eats, and a dose of exoticism, if nothing else - but I'm sorry to say that Death Money is suffering in the review department from a) coming right behind A Time for Gifts, and b) being read while on that super-charged vacation in New Orleans. I'm not sure it got all the attention it deserved. This is not a complicated story, nor long, but it is embedded in a subterranean layer of Chinatown life and crime. Chang carefully recreates the various relationships and societies that under-gird the crime world here, and you need to pay attention else the names and places all start to sound alike and you don't want to become a speakee-English kind of reader, do you?
Our Hero, Jack Yu, is called on to a case of an unidentified body found in the Harlem River, and quickly figures out that this is more than just a jumper. A few clues lead him toward some shady businessmen, although his friend Billy Bow the Tofu King doesn't exactly help to keep the investigation on the up and up. Through careful police work, and late-night forays into vividly-described gambling dens and strip joints, Yu solves the case.
That's it. Just didn't grab me. Despite the supposed danger of going into these various dens of iniquity, and some threatening characters, you never really get a good adrenaline rush - Jack is almost always in command of the situation, even if he has to swallow a few responses to suspicious fellow cops who don't understand the Chinese world. Despite the exoticism and roughness of the setting, the characters don't seem terribly original or nuanced, so don't surprise or delight. Jack is very likable, smarter than the average cop, doesn't quite fit in to either the Chinese or the American world, but somehow that is expected. His friend Billy Bow, the Tofu King, is a fast-talking businessman who likes his nookie and a little criminal excitement, and swears a lot. OK. And what of Jack's girlfriend, tough lawyer Alexandra? She shows up at the beginning, then disappears, conveniently, until the crime is solved. The non-Chinese cops are equally as interchangeable.
The prose here is workaday, but I disliked the excessive use of italics to emphasize an important thought. You can practically see Our Hero turning toward the camera, brow furrowed in concentration, as he voices these thoughts. But how? Not everyone, apparently. Just four blocks and parked on a stakeout. Often, Chinese words spelled out in the Roman alphabet are italicized, tong, kai dai, jai fear, gee pa faahn, and that is OK, but the two together is just too much. There are often multiple italics on every page and it is distracting.
Now, it is possible that earlier books in this series dealt with different themes in different ways, and might be more engaging. I'm not sure I'm going to take the time to find out.
But before we go, let's take a moment to enjoy the fact that any mystery set in Chinatown is probably going to involve some excellent eats, and Death Money delivers on that front.
"The noise level in Eddie's was amped and they both leaned in over their Three Precious plates of rice, som bow faahn, to hear each other.
'Francis Gee?' Billy grinned. 'Really?'
Jack nodded as he forked up a piece of soy-sauce chicken.
'Everybody in Chinatown calls him Franky Noodles,' Billy continued. 'Hangs with the Black Dragons. He ain't no fighter; he's a rich-boy wannabe. Daddy's got some juice.' He jabbed up a piece of for ngaap, roast duck.
'The Dragons still working out of that spot behind Half-Ass?' Jack asked, working a forkful of cha siew, roast pork and fried egg.
'Yeah. I hate those motherfuckers as much as I hate the Ghosts, you know?'
'Yeah,' Jack agreed, knowing Billy hated the thugs and gang culture in Chinatown. 'He got any beefs?'
'The usual shit between the Dragons and Ghosts. But he's a player,' Billy sneered. 'Drives a tricked-out red Camaro. Acts tough because he knows Daddy can bail him out.'
'Sounds like you don't like him, man.'
'I hate them all.' Billy chomped a chunk of for yook. 'Punk asses giving us hardworking Chinamen a bad name.'" (142)
I don't even know what for yook is but I want some, please!