Gallant cop, reporter on quest hit right notes


RED JADE, by Henry Chang. Soho Press, 2011, 248 pp., $14 (paper)
KILLED AT THE WHIM OF A HAT, by Colin Cotterill. Minotaur, 2011, 374 pages, $24.99 (hardcover)

It is pleasing to note that among the growing number of Asian-Americans producing works of fiction are authors who specialize in stories of crime and detection. Wisconsin-born Milton K. Ozaki (1913-89), credited as the first of these, published more than two dozen works set mostly in the U.S. Midwest. Living writers who have contributed to this genre include Dale Furutani — the first Asian-American to win a major mystery writing award — Laura Joh Rowland, Sujata Massey, Leonard Chang, Don Lee, Naomi Hirahara, Ed Lin, and the author of the work under review, Henry Chang.

Chang’s two earlier works, “Chinatown Beat” and “Year of the Dog,” combine the genres of police procedural and ethnic detective. While they conveyed life, and occasionally violent death, in New York’s Chinatown in a convincing manner, Chang’s series character, NYPD Detective Jack Yu, spent too much of his time wallowing in feelings of guilt and self-pity over his dysfunctional family situation.

In his third work, it seems Chang is finally getting it right. Jack Yu is doggedly focused on tracking down a femme fatale, a Chinese woman known only as Mona, who in a previous work killed her patron, a wealthy gang leader, and staged the crime to make another man appear guilty of the murder. She then fled New York for the West Coast with a small fortune in jewels she’d looted from her victim. The gang is determined to wreak vengeance on the woman, and it becomes a contest to see who will get to her first.

Acting on his own initiative, Yu tenaciously tails a Chinese gang leader to Seattle and finds the trail intersects with Mona. Following a shootout at the wharf, Mona slips beneath the waves, leaving bloodstains but no corpse. Is Chang planning to revive her in his next installment? Either way I’ll look forward to reading it, because Jack Yu is finally metamorphosing into an appealingly gallant figure.

Thailand-based British-Australian author Colin Cotterill is best known for his series of mysteries set in the late 1970s featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun, the national coroner of Laos. The works serve up a smorgasbord of endearing character portrayals and rich ethnic lore.

In “Killed at the Whim of a Hat,” Cotterill has created a new character, a young female Thai reporter named Jimm Juree. Originally from the northern Thai city of Chiengmai, Jimm has followed her family, the members of whom all possess varying degrees of eccentricity, to operate a struggling resort hotel on a beach in southern Thailand.

Close to the hotel, two bodies are discovered buried in an old Volkswagen microbus, a vehicle once favored by hippie tourists back in the 1970s. Elsewhere a Buddhist priest is found murdered on the grounds of his temple. Jimm, who is miserable working for the family business — which isn’t going anywhere — is delighted for these opportunities to get back into the investigative reporting game. In her quest to get to the bottom of the crimes — one of which has a Japanese angle — she encounters a procession of memorable local characters.

The book’s title, a mangling of the idiom “at the drop of a hat,” is a “Bushism,” one of the many examples of jumbled English for which America’s previous president was well noted. Cotterill also tacks on a Bushism at the start of each chapter. But the title at least ties in remarkably well with the plot. By coming up with an original and entertaining new formula, this author reaffirms his creativity and versatility.