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by Henry Chang
Soho Crime, April 2014
225 pages
ISBN: 1616953519

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Visitors to the Chinatowns in various big North American cities in search of a nice dish of moo shu pork are probably subliminally aware at least that the crowded, noisy, and neon-signed streets, the restaurants, the noodle shops, are not all there is to life in these busy neighbourhoods, that beyond them lie a complex and lively culture all but impenetrable by the ordinary tourist.

Henry Chang, on the other hand, is no tourist. Born, bred, and resident in New York City's Chinatown for his entire life, he has produced a series of detective novels that he intends, he says, less as "conventional mysteries than studies in Chinese-American culture." DEATH MONEY is the fourth in this series and like the earlier books, features Detective Jack Yu of the Manhattan South NYPD. This time out, he is being dragged the length of Manhattan to deal with the body of a young Asian man fished out of the Harlem River. Suicide? So it would seem until the autopsy reveals that he was stabbed in the heart.

Though Jack bears some of the marks of the standard noir cop - serious drinker, unmarried loner, unlucky in love - it's hard to call this a police procedural as he works his case more as might a private detective than an actual member of the force. He works alone or with Billy Bow, proprietor of a Chinese sweets shop, not with a police partner, travelling the city by public transport or in Billy's battered Mustang, and sometimes resorting to unconventional sources, like the clairvoyant Ah Por, who "reads" the scraps of evidence found in the dead man's pockets. His investigation leads him into the Chinese food trade, restaurants, supply, and the like, to discover that little about it is untouched by gang activity and corruption.

The book is set in 1995, before whatever changes would affect Chinatown in the wake of 9/11. It is of greater interest as a guided tour of the district rather than as a detective story, as the detection takes a back seat much of the time to Jack's wandering through the streets and eateries of the area. While certainly the book provides an insider's look at a social structure that would otherwise be closed to most readers, the experience is sometimes overly didactic. Jack constantly translates back and forth between English and Chinese, carefully pointing out when a character is speaking this or that variety of slang or regional dialect. Were Chinese not a tonal language, this might be more informative than it is. But as it stands, the reader sometimes has the impression of reading a book written in subtitles.

All the same, there seems to me to be reason in Chang's method. My copy came with a couple of notes in the "death money" of the title - the paper currency issued by the "Hell Bank Corporation," and ritually burnt to accompany a dead person on his voyage to the other world. Like the money, both victim and killer in Jack's case were also made of paper, two invisible men living on the fringes of the restaurant industry to whom no one paid any attention. It was their very insubstantiality that allowed the crime. To Billy, this is irony, to Jack a cause for sadness. In his dogged insistence on providing the Chinese word for the Chinese thing, Henry Chang may very well be insisting on the complex reality that lies behind the often tacky face that Chinatown shows to the North American eye.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2014

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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