Black Karma by Thatcher Robinson is the second in the White Ginger series, featuring San Francisco’s souxun, or “people-finder,” Bai Jiang, assisting the police to locate a man whose track leads her to intelligence agencies and war merchants (available November 4, 2014).
Who is this thirty-year-old beauty, this mother and wealthy Chinese-American woman who stashes a knife up her sleeve and can karate kick her way out of a circle of underworld thugs? Her name is Bai Jiang.
Bai Jiang is also the detective the SFPD hires when a sting goes wrong, which is exactly what happens when one million dollars of the department’s money disappears along with heroin also worth that amount. Three people, including a police officer were killed, and it all went down in the SOMA, a section of San Francisco.
Bai is the city’s best-known souxun, so she’s asked to find the likely suspect of the crime, Daniel Chen, who is believed to be hiding in Chinatown, where Bai lives and works. With typical wit that Thatcher Robinson manages to lace throughout the story, Bai describes her association with the SFPD:
My grandfather was Shan Chu of Sun Yee On, the head of the dragon. I’m what the FBI refers to as a ‘criminal affiliate.’ I’ve always thought the label was a little harsh.
From the beginning, Bai suspects the police of using her to find Daniel Chen with the intentions of killing him. Also dubious of the police is Jason Lum, her “ex,” who is a leader of the Triad, one of the Chinese groups of organized crime. Jason is also the father of Bai’s thirteen-year-old daughter. He asks Bai what makes her believe “the brotherhood” is involved.
“I’ve been told a million dollars in cash and the equivalent value of China White went missing yesterday during the shootout in the SOMA. I assumed if China White traded hands in San Francisco, SunYee On would be involved.”
“There’s nothing wrong with your logic,’” Jason assured her. “It’s your facts that are wrong. First, if the Brotherhood were to broker a large sale, we’d make sure the transaction took place here, in Chinatown, where we have control over the streets. Second, there’s no way we would sell heroin to undercover police officers. We pay them substantial amounts of money to leave us and our business alone.”
Robinson speaks with astute knowledge of the underworld. The sting gone wrong in the SOMA is the beginning of the story that embroils Bai, her partner and friend, Lee, also Jason, police detective Kelly, and a myriad of organized crime characters and also international intelligence agencies, some of whom are linked to Afghan tribal leaders and the Ministry of State Services of the Central Party of the People’s Republic.
Bai is up to her pretty neck in very dangerous Black Karma.
Although Bai is hired by the police and promised ten percent of the million dollars, money is never an issue, because she owns an elegant three-story building, and lives a life of luxury. Later in the story, Bai reveals her true drive to find “lost” people.
I feel like I’m doing something good for someone, making a small positive difference in the world. If I can find a lost child or a sibling separated by forces beyond their control, I’ve brought some joy into the world. And people aren’t always lost. Sometimes they’re abandoned. That pain needs to be addressed as well. … Those are all selfish reasons, I know. Most of the time, what I do makes me feel good and gives me a sense of accomplishment.
Bai is revealing these deep sentiments to her “ex” Jason, who continues throughout the story to attempt to protect Bai in her dangerous adventures and her questionable alliances, although she acts independently and is a capable opponent:
…three men dropped Michael to the floor and rushed her. Ducking under the first man’s grasp, she kicked the back of his knee and forced him into a kneeling position. She took a quick step back to use the kneeling man as an obstacle to the other two men facing her before leaping onto his back and using him as a springboard, launching into the air to kick a second man in the face. Her shoe slapped his head hard enough to flip him to the ground.
Jason, also wealthy, is perfectly groomed, handsome, and always stepping out of a shiny chauffer-driven limousine, and surrounded by Triad soldiers. He is a far cry from your ordinary gangster, he’s a proven leader “at a relatively young age by being very, very good at his job. He killed people.”
Bai and Jason’s lingering love for each other, and their steamy love scenes keep the plot humming along on a personal level. But Bai also dates others and considers marrying someone else at one point, so their fractured relationship is somewhat of a mystery in itself; do they want to get back together or not?
Also, Bai’s unusual family and friends open the story up to ideas of what constitutes a family. She negotiates with a gang to rescue a girl, inviting her to be her daughter and live with her family. The reluctant girl, who calls herself “a whore,” thinks she’s not good enough.
Everyone tries to be the best person they can be. We don’t always succeed. All we can do is keep trying to be better by being kinder, gentler, and more forgiving. Just remember you’re not alone. Everyone struggles to find themselves.
Besides the extraordinary voyage into the brutal underworld, the above is one of the many positive, Buddhist messages delivered by Robinson’s extraordinary character, Bai Jiang.
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Dorothy Hayes is the author of Murder at the P&Z from Mainly Murder Press. She’s been known to blog at Women of Mystery.