S.J. Rozan: Ghost Hero

With the passing of Robert B. Parker, the Private Eye (P.I.) genre took a big hit. There is Loren Estleman, of course, whose work only continues to mature and deepen, and the heir to Parker, Robert Crais, but other than that the P.I. genre is filled with talented flash in the pan writers who come and go. Happily, if you don’t want to turn to your tattered copy of Chandler’s The Big Sleep, there’s also S.J. Rozan, now 11 books in to her series alternating between the voices of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. This is a Lydia entry, Lydia being the Chinese- American daughter of a traditional Chinese mother who completely disapproves of her career choice. Also, she and her mother live together.

This backstory is truly only a background detail in this fast paced entry set in the high stakes Manhattan art scene. With a Rozan novel, you always learn a bit along with a great story. In this one, you get to learn a bit about Chinese art and Chinese dissidents. The “Ghost Hero” of the title refers to an artist who died in the Tiananmen Square uprising, and what’s got the art world all abuzz is the idea that the ghost hero, Chau, is still alive and creating new work. Someone has hired Lydia and Bill to look into it, and, it turns out, someone else has hired another investigator, Jack Lee, for the same purpose.

Rozan is a past master at taking an incredibly complicated plot but making it seem – to the reader – not complicated, thanks to her clear and concise style of writing. She is able to convey both emotion and humor in a very compact manner, a manner that feels like a particularly American style of writing. This, of course, is a quality she shares with Robert B. Parker, though I would venture to say Rozan’s novels are more complex and shaded than Parker’s, and her central characters, unlike the iconic Spenser and Hawk, are instead more comfortably and recognizably human.

As the plot develops, Lydia and Bill join forces with Jack Lee, even to the point of meeting his client (who had demanded absolute confidentiality). Jack’s client is annoyed and goes so far as to fire Jack, but as he’s been shot at in the line of duty, he sticks with the case, and Lydia sticks with her own mystery client and his much smaller retainer.

As the story proceeds Rozan sketches in the details of the Manhattan gallery world with memorable aplomb, and there are certain characters that are difficult to forget. The most memorable, though, might be Bill’s impression of a wealthy Russian collector with lots of “bling.” Lydia literally has to look away.

With alternating scenes of humor and action Rozan advances her story, and as a reader you become more and more invested in wanting to find out exactly what happened to Ghost hero Chau. She’s such a good writer she keeps you guessing, and like only the very best writers, the true story isn’t revealed until the very last paragraph. It was an unexpected development, but not one she hadn’t laid the groundwork for.

The complicated plot threads are neatly tied up as are the emotional ones – though the relationship between Lydia and Bill, never absolutely defined, still remains somewhat up in the air. This is another bravura effort from a supremely talented writer.