Sunday, September 26, 2010

Atmosphere (Henry Chang)

(Henry Chang will be a member of my "Flags of Terror" panel at Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco. This post originally appeared in November 2008.)
Year of the Dog, Henry Chang's second novel for Soho Crime, is all atmosphere – meteorological, economic, social and human – with plot strands gradually weaving their way into the story until one realizes that many of the details that constitute the atmosphere turn out to be plot elements.

To find out what I mean, you'll have to read the book. For now, know that the novel's opening is worthy of any number of 1950s films noirs. So is the rest of the book, for that matter. The New York of The Naked City contained eight million stories; Year of the Dog makes a valiant run at that number, giving us protagonist Jack Yu, who can't keep away from his old Chinatown precinct; a dying bookie who comments wryly on his own romantic dreams; the hairdresser, cruelly exploited by human traffickers, who tries to help him.

We come to know a boyhood friend of Jack's who dies in gang violence and a mysteriously named Triad official sent from Hong Kong to check on criminal operations in New York, and that's just a start. Chang not only introduces us to Chinatown's newer Fukienese arrivals, with their wide ideological separation from the neighborhood's longer-established residents, but he portrays dangerous criminal rivalries among these relative newcomers. And, of course, the Chinese characters interact, sometimes uneasily or violently, with black, Hispanic and white characters. This is, after all New York.

So effectively has the atmosphere been set that when the climactic confrontation happens, inevitable in general plan, an accident in its details, it seems at once cathartic and fated.

As dark crime novels often do, Year of the Dog has a touch of grim humor. Here, that touch is more wryly comic than most. Sai Go, the dying bookie, thinks of how he might like to spend his final months:
"He had a vision of himself in Thailand somewhere, a sunny tropical vista with brown-skinned girls to ease his remaining days. Spend the nights drinking Singha beer and feasting on satays, chow kueh teow noodles, and tom yum soup.

"When he thought better of it, he felt he could just as easily go to Fat Lily's or Angelina's for brown-skinned girls, and to Penang or Jaya Village for Thai beer,
roti and hainam chicken. For the sunny vista he could take a bus south on the interstate, or take the train with the skylight roof to Florida somewhere for a few weeks. Somewhere sunny and not too far. A cruise to one of the islands What would he do with a shipload of lo fang strangers? He could just as well be alone in Manhattan, if he only turned off his cell phones and stayed out of the OTB and Chinatown."
(The "Flags of Terror" panel happens Friday, Oct. 15, at 10 a.m. Click here for the complete Bouchercon lineup.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Who do I see about this Rolex I bought? It doesnt work at all now.

November 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You know Chinatown, you've read this novel, or both. Knock-off watches are both part of the atmosphere and a pivotal plot point in Year of the Dog.

Oddly enough, though, the novel avoids the question of whether the counterfeits work. Since Chang's Web site is called, I presume he has at least one more Jack Yu novel coming. Perhaps the third book will explore what happens when the watches stop ticking.

November 06, 2008  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Havent read the book but it sounds good. Got a few NY Chinatown watches as gifts over the years though. Guaranteed to work to at least Columbus Circle.

V word = wuss which is not nice at all.

November 06, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The v-word generator is dissing you, dude.

The author was quoted as saying that he's most interested in portraying Chinatown's culture, and he does a remarkably convincing job of that, especially for a relatively short book (about 230 pages). Knock-off goods are part of that portrayal. Interestingly, he says he has not taken much flak from Chinatown residents over his novels, except from a very few older folks.

If you want to make your watches last beyond Columbus Circle, then take the express rather than the local. That might get you as far as Lincoln Center before the watches conk out.

November 06, 2008  
Anonymous LauraRoot said...

Oh good, I was very impressed by Chinatown beat, so I'm very pleased to see that a new one has been published! I found some similarities between Chinatown beat and the Jack Taylor/Ken Bruen novels - atmosphere and characterisation of the ?flawed detective dominating over the "mystery" to be solved.

November 08, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for the comment, Laura. Jack Yu takes a drink from time to time, though nothing like Jack Taylor. I thought of him as a regular-guy detective rather than flawed. Jack Taylor, on the other hand, is Flawed.

I haven't read Chinatown Beat yet, but in this book, it's the setting more than the characterization that predominate. Or rather, the characterization, especially the first three that I mentioned, are inextricable parts of that setting. It will be interesting to compare the two books once I've read the first.

I'm also happy to report that I met Henry Chang at Bouchercon and that he is a jovial and modest fellow. This should make no difference, I know, but a guy that nice, you want to read and like his books.

November 08, 2008  

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