Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Dead Men Tell No Tales... and Make No Art


You know those “old friends”... the ones you can just be yourself around, who accept you, flaws and all, and with whom an absence--of weeks, months, or sometimes even years--does nothing to diminish the bond you share? To blatantly hijack the tagline from an iconic ad campaign, those old friends are priceless. 

So, when recently I found myself sans iPad (and thus, Kindle reading app)--which, naturally, left me rooting around for something, anything new to read--it was with immense pleasure (and no small amount of relief) that I lucked upon a very old friend (or two): the unfailingly witty-and-entertaining private detective duo of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith--finally back in action after an absence of a few years, on yet another engrossing case in the Big Apple--in S.J. Rozan’s fabulous mystery, Ghost Hero


There are certain professions in which it’s generally understood that a high percentage of people (clients, patients, whatever) will lie to you. Cops, lawyers, priests, and accountants spring instantly to mind--and so do private investigators. (Sure, you might not care if the gumshoe you’ve chosen at random from a listing in the Yellow Pages knows why you want to track down this person or that thing... but then again, you might.)  So, when Lydia senses that her new client isn’t telling her everything, she’s not surprised. She is a trifle concerned, however, when a little digging after their initial meeting unearths a big fat nada regarding the client, himself; no one named “Jeff Dunbar” matches the man she met, the address he gave is fake, and his cell number--the only way she has of contacting him--belongs to an untraceable burner phone.

But, since work has been scarce, recently--and she sort of likes having that nice, plump envelope of cold hard cash tucked away in her safe--she decides to let the fictional Mr. Dunbar keep his secrets (for now) and see where the case leads. Plus, it’s potentially a lot more interesting than following someone’s cheating spouse or catching out a dishonest employee. Dunbar claims to have heard through the art world grapevine that a trio of paintings by Chau Chun, a famous Chinese artist known for mixing classical technique with veiled political commentary, have recently come to light, and he wants Lydia to track them down. The catch? The paintings in question aren’t old paintings recently taken out of storage; they’re new Chaus... even though the artist--now known as “Ghost Hero” Chau--died in Tiananmen Square more than twenty years ago.  

Lydia’s interest is further piqued after she explains the case to Bill, her longtime-acquaintance-cum-business-partner, and he proceeds to escort her to a ritzy address on the Upper East Side, saying he knows a guy who specializes in contemporary Chinese art. To her surprise, Jack Lee (a handsome, fellow American-born Chinese guy--not that Lydia’s looking, or anything) isn’t just an expert, but another private eye, whose area is art thefts and crimes. And, it turns out that he has also just been hired--not by Dunbar, but by a professor who knew Chau way back when in China--to look for those same paintings. Lydia, Bill, and Jack agree to share key info while continuing to work their respective cases, since they would otherwise be bumping into one another at every turn. 

Lydia and Bill head off (in disguise, no less) to meet with a gallery owner--a royal chauvinistic pig of a sleazebag gallery owner--whom Jack is pretty sure knows something about the whereabouts of the mystery paintings; meanwhile, Jack busies himself doing online research from his office. But, after someone takes potshots at him from the street--blasting out the picture window and leaving bullet holes in his walls and ceiling--the trio decide the strength-in-numbers thing probably isn’t a bad idea, and join forces.

The deeper they dig into the whereabouts of the mysterious paintings--traveling all over New York City and its environs in the process, the more they realize what a hot potato the case is, with everyone from gallery owners (respectable ones and the sleazebag) to prospective buyers (including, unfortunately, several trigger-happy mobsters) to government sources (from their government, as well as the People’s Republic of China)... all making it clear just how desperate they are to get their hands on those elusive Chaus.


I’ve been a big S.J. Rozan fan since Lydia and Bill’s debut in 1994’s China Trade, and, as proven by her latest, Ghost Hero, theirs is a pairing which has only gotten better with age--a real rarity among long-running series. Smart, clever Lydia is as tenacious (and long-suffering) as ever, with wry, observant Bill her constant foil. Their dialogue is sharp, amusing, and never feels forced. (Superb recurring characters, such as Lydia’s much-put-upon Chinese mother and her much-younger computer-whiz cousin, just add to the whole package.)

Rozan’s skill isn’t restricted to characters and banter, though; she also has a real gift for intelligent, complex, and logical plotting. Ghost Hero doesn’t go where you first think it will, nor does it follow the path which you next suppose it might. There are twists, turns, and surprises aplenty, here, creating a challenging, fascinating puzzle for her characters and her readers alike.

It goes without saying that Ghost Hero will appeal to fans of genuinely well-crafted mysteries, but it has a lot to recommend it to a much wider group of readers as well, touching as it does on art, politics, international relations, and the Chinese-American experience. I had a really hard time putting this one down, and now, I can’t wait to see what happens next.  

GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating:  Finely-Crafted Mousies