One Red Bastard by Ed Lin is a police procedural in 1976’s New York City, set against the backdrop of America’s relationship with Taiwan and Beijing, China (available April 24, 2012).
There’s a lot in a name.
Mao’s, for one, carries some weight, punching well beyond the grave. Even those unfamiliar with most Chinese history are not likely to say Mao who? In One Red Bastard, Ed Lin has Mao’s daughter’s Chinese representative murdered. Bad enough, but this is not in China. It is New York in 1976, and the finger of suspicion is pointed firmly at Lonnie, the girlfriend of detective-in-training Robert Chow.
“If a daughter turns out badly, she’ll go to another family anyway, but having a bad son is serious” reads the proverb on the opening page.
Lin captures the tensions and issues in New York’s Chinatown, the trouble between Americans and Chinese, and the difficulties between family members nicely. Interesting heroes always have problems and internal debates, and Chow is no different. Does he do the right thing and let events, and justice, take their course? Or does he bend things off the straight and narrow to save his woman from a murder charge?
The story moves along at a most-acceptable criminal pace. A place where Lin scores top marks, for me, is in the names that define each character, making people more than a giant, seething mass. Each one oozes feeling and identity. Who can ignore people called Pizza Pete, English and, of course, the midget? There is even a Mock Duck, The Brow, Spiky Hair and, being 1976, Crew Cut. I think my favourite is Bad Boy. Any one of them could have been responsible for the victim’s early demise. The evidence points to Lonnie though, as she appears to have a motive and certainly had the opportunity.
I went to see the midget the next day at his toy store on Mulberry. He was sitting on a stool behind the counter. His head was down, sipping the last of an herb-tea drink through a straw.
His combed black hair was so shiny it looked white where the sunlight hit it.
He glanced up at me quickly and turned away.
“That was a tough loss, huh?” I said. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you on the losing side of something.”
It was well known throughout Chinatown that the midget had never lost at any game ever. He could whip you at chess, American chess, checkers, and Sorry! Monopoly, too, if you had the time.
“You want something fun to play?” he asked. “I think we just got some new four-piece puzzles. You can handle that, right, Officer?”
None of us really remember people’s names as well as their characteristics. It is not Mr. Wilson in the bakers. It is the man with the bushy hair in the bakers, so he becomes Bushy. I was at school with a boy called “Chiselchin” for obvious reasons. When I met him twenty years later with his wife and kids, I couldn’t call him by his nickname, but I remembered no other, so I just stayed quiet.
During the course of the book, given the murderous outcome, Mao’s daughter might have cause for regret at seeking asylum in America. But anyone reading this book can have little regret at availing themselves of Mr. Lin’s skill at putting people exactly where they should be, and making them exceedingly memorable.
This is great stuff. I hope Lin will keep them coming, fast, thick, and slick.
Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.
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