Thursday, March 25, 2010
Henry Chang/CHINATOWN BEAT
Manhattan, 1994. Detective Jack Yu has gotten reassigned to the Fifth Precinct, the Chinatown he grew up in and of which he has some pretty tainted associations. On the Chinatown beat, the NYPD doesn't quite know which end is up: there are victims who don't speak any English, gang and ethnic rivalries that are impossible for outsiders to untangle, underground casinos, drug rings, and sex trafficking English-only speakers will never crack. Giving it up as a lost cause, most of the Fifth Precinct put in their 9 to 5 and call it a day. Meanwhile, no one is protecting the civilians from this underworld. Well, Jack Yu is. He can't stop himself from getting involved.
Chinatown Beat isn't a cozy mystery--there's no open and shut case. Rather the story tracks Jack and various seedy and/or down-on-their-luck characters through a month of bilingual crime. The story, which is studded with Cantonese for an added sense of cultural legitimacy, touches upon such issues as the desperation of immigrants and their reliance on such failing enterprises as the Golden Venture (the boat of illegal immigrants that crashed off the coast of New York in 1993 and killed hundreds of people), and on both the bad and the good sides of the reliance of different layers of the Chinese-in-America community on "benevolent associations."
I was surprised to find the book taking unexpected paths; the narrative is very concerned with the psychologies of both Jack Yu and various criminal elements he encounters along the way. While some of Henry Chang's characters are wholly despicable, many of them are not--there's Uncle Four, who may be a bully and a mafioso, but who uses his position of power to help dying old ladies and men who've been robbed. There's a desperate young sex slave who's not afraid to resort to violence. There's a curmudgeonly restaurant owner who struggles against unfair persecution by the health and sanitation department. And there are many other victims and beneficiaries of the ethnic enclave.
In terms of thriller writing, Chinatown Beat is vivid and transporting. There is rather a lot of sex in it, and sometimes Jack Yu cows to the conventions of the detective genre (alcoholism, loss of a childhood friend to street violence, regrets over never having had the chance to say goodbye to his father). But overall this is a good and layered read. Be forewarned: you will end up wanting noodles and tofu.