Ed Lin: Snakes Can’t Run

Bouchercon serves many purposes and offers many pleasures, but one of them is discovering new authors. Attending a panel composed of authors of whom I was already a fan—Theresa Schwegel and Barry Maitland—I encountered Ed Lin. I mentioned him to my pal Jim Huang, and he said, Oh, yes, S.J. Rozan is very enthusiastic about him. After reading his book, I can certainly see why. The mild mannered pleasant fellow on the panel at Bouchercon seems a far cry from the type of hard edged noir that he actually writes.

His character, Robert Chow, is an “ABC” or American Born Chinese, and struggling with the many versions of his identity. He’s a Vietnam Vet (the book is set in 1976, so it’s a recent experience) working as a cop in New York City’s Chinatown. He’s also a former alcoholic, so some people that encounter him aren’t too sure what to make of him if they knew him when he was drinking.

This book was written by an American but it bears more resemblance to some of the more excellent foreign fiction that’s gained wide exposure over here—it claims a place next to authors like Henning Mankell and Arnaldur Indridason. The Chinatown setting is a total immersion: a different perspective (understandable) from the ones offered by American writers like Leslie Glass or even the excellent S.J. Rozan. I like both of those authors very much but Lin’s perspective is an absolutely Chinese one, and it’s fascinating.

Robert assumes different personas: at work with his boss; with his partner, a fellow vet; and with the various denizens of Chinatown. He even stops by the toy store run by a friend at night to offer help to Chinese otherwise afraid to approach the police. All of this is a rich and tasty background for the actual story of the “human snakes”—illegal immigrants brought here for a price, who then have to work as virtual slaves to pay off the debt incurred. The story is kicked off by two of the snakes found dead and mutilated under a bridge. Chow’s only clue is that the Snakehead, or smuggler, in charge of the operation is known as “Brother Five.”

Robert and his partner through hard legwork find various candidates for Brother Five, but like any mystery writer worth his salt, Lin makes sure there are several red herrings in the mix. And like any good noir writer, he also makes sure that not one of the possibilities is actually untainted. His matter of fact story telling style makes it hard to tell which one is the bad guy—it could be any one of several guys. And Robert Chow is himself an appealing flawed character who is finding his way through the world, hoping to make detective, hoping to get along with his mother, trying to be a good boyfriend to his girl, Lonnie, trying to help his partner with his marital situation.

This is an atmosphere rich and character dense book, and the setting of Chinatown and the subtleties that govern the different factions within it (Mandarin, Cantonese, Fukinese: there’s a definite pecking order) are masterfully done. Towards the end in true noir fashion Chow thinks to himself, as he visits the various players in the drama, that he wants “to confirm that I had ruined my reputation in all corners of Chinatown,” making him very much the classic mystery outsider. Even his name, the American “Robert” and the very Chinese “Chow” place him in the middle of no-man’s land. This is a writer well worth watching.