Monday, February 11, 2008
This Is a Bust!
I stumbled across This Is a Bust, by Ed Lin, in my local library by accident—because the cool, funky cover art (pictured above) grabbed my attention. The interior of the book also had a somewhat funky design. There are no first line paragraph indents; instead, everything is flush left with an extra return between each paragraph. This was all very appealing to me as a book designer (yes, I do judge a book by its cover). OK, enough on the design.
The novel also appealed to me as a writer. The back cover text states "This Is a Bust explores the unexotic and very real complexities of New York City's Chinatown, circa 1976, through the eyes of a Chinese American cop. This Is a Bust is at once a murder mystery, a noir homage and a devastating, uniquely nuanced portrait of a neighborhood in flux, stuck between old rivalries and youthful idealism."
This is a good description, but it was the character of Robert Chow, the cop, who intrigued me more than the solution to the murder mystery itself. In fact, the mystery really isn't the focus of this book. The characterization of Chinatown as a whole, its culture (which was unknown to me), and all the individual characters who populate Lin's novel are the real story. There is Chow's former partner Vandyne, an African-American, who is on the fast track to making detective; the Midget, who hangs out in Columbus park and beats all opponents in every board game imaginable; Paul, a young, brilliant tough; Lonnie, a college student and bakery worker who has eyes for Chow; Barbara, an old love interest of Chow's who made it out of Chinatown, only to return; and Yip, an elderly man who may or may not have killed his wife.
All of this is set against the background of a 1976 Chinatown, an era before the internet, before cell phones, and before the U.S. opened up relations with communist China (but is putting out feelers). Policeman Chow wonders at one point why he fought against communism in Vietnam. Though only 25, he feels old, having seen both the big world (Vietnam), and the small world (Chinatown), and how it can wear a man down. He's lost, and alcoholic, and knows he is just a token in the police department, and will never be given the investigations he desires to become a detective.
Chow is drawn to the murder mystery, though, because he understands the Chinatown culture, more so than his friend Vandyne, who is leading the investigation. He wants to prove to himself and his boss that he is more than just a patrolman walking a beat, more than just a token face for photo ops. He's warned off the case by his boss, but it nags at him, and clues occasionally fall into his lap whether he wants them to or not. As Chow puts the pieces of the mystery together, he also sorts out his own personal life.
This Is a Bust is anything but a bust. It's first-rate. Check it out.