(This is the second installment of the Book Review Club organized by Barrie Summy. For more reviews, head on over to her blog.)
If there is one thing I learned while reading S. J. Rozan’s The Shanghai Moon it’s that Chinese-American private detective Lydia Chin is not Sam Spade.
In a unique bit of timing, I had just finished re-reading The Maltese Falcon to bring all the Spade-isms back into my current memory before reading the new prequel, Spade and Archer by Joe Gores. But before I could get to the not-really-further adventures of Sam Spade, I read Rozan’s novel.
I was recently invited by the good folks over at NewMysteryReader.com to write some reviews. After seeing the types of books I read last year, they thought that the hard-boiled material would fit me well. With that endorsement and Spade’s wise-cracking still echoing in my head, I cracked The Shanghai Moon, expecting a certain type of book.
I didn’t get it. But, in many ways, I got something much better and, frankly, more satisfying.
Fellow New York PI, Joe Pilarski, asks Chin for some assistance. He has a new case that has a Chinese connection. Officials in Shanghai have unearthed some European jewelry dating back to World War II. Once the former owner has been identified as Rosalie Gilder, these no longer become just any jewels. This find becomes *the* find. You see, Rosalie was the original owner of the Shanghai Moon, a necklace made of jade and diamonds. It is the stuff of legend. Men have devoted their entire lives to the fruitless search for this mythical gem.
Pilarski and Chin meet Alice Fairchild, a lawyer specializing in recovering stolen Jewish property. Alice shows Chin and Pilarski an old photograph of Rosalie and a letter the young refugee wrote in 1938. Alice also produces a photograph of Wong Pan, a Chinese official who has disappeared from Shanghai. Since the jewelry has also disappeared, they believe that Wong is in New York, with the jewelry looking for a buyer. The Shanghai Moon might or might not be with the same cache. Chin and Pilarski are hired to ask around the Chinatown jewelry shop owners and let any potential buyer know that Alice is willing to pay for the stolen jewels on behalf of her clients, relatives of Rosalie Gilder.
All in all, pretty standard PI stuff, both as a job and as a novel. But Rozan throws in the history of the Jewish refugees in China. This wasn't some dry, wall-to-wall text boring history. We learn about it as Chin learns about it: through some dialogue, the internet, and, most importantly, letters written by Rosalie. You can see Chin's gradual movement from disinterested detective taking a case to very-much interested detective/person wanting to know the entire story. If you weren’t already hooked by the present-day mystery, the engrossing historical subplot will nab you but good.
We, like Chin, become personally involved with the story of Rosalie, eighteen, and her brother, Paul, fourteen, as they journey from Austria to Shanghai in 1938. It is this involvement that drives Chen for the rest of the story, even as people start turning up dead.
I had hoped to have my review, the play-by-play kind, posted at NewMysteryReader by today so that I could reference it while I discuss other aspects of the book here. Alas, it’ll have to be the other way round. Look for my full review at NewMysteryReader soon.
But let me return to Sam Spade and Lydia Chin and their lineage. Even though Hammett didn’t invent the hard-boiled PI, he set the standard. Spade is a huge figure in detective fiction and all detectives can’t help but be compared to him. Some fictional detectives do not veer far from the Spade branch of the detective tree. I’m thinking here of Marlowe or Hammer. Chin, and, to a lesser degree, her partner, Bill Smith, might be part of the same tree but they live on a separate branch.
In the Maltese Falcon, Spade had an adversarial relationship with the police. He loathes them and they him. It’s a mutual dislike and distrust. No matter what Spade does, it’s always in his best interest, no matter the cost to other people. In The Shanghai Moon, Chin’s best friend, Mary, is a NYPD cop. You know how, in movies or books, the characters don’t talk to each other? I mean, you’re slamming your head against a wall and yelling at the screen “Just call the cops.” Chin does, frequently. She readily admits at certain stages that the story is too big for her and wants to let the NYPD take over.
She can’t, of course. Just like Spade can’t, just like we couldn’t. She moves her investigation forward. And we willingly go along. The more Chin discovers, the more she wants to put things right. She and Spade—and just about every PI as well—are alike in that respect. But she doesn’t do it for self-congratulations. She seems more pure than Spade. Well, let me rephrase. Spade was pure in his desire to keep himself out of jail and out of a police station. Chin’s motives are much more personal. They feel more real. She comes to care for some of the people in this story and that makes all the difference.
I don’t usually like to start a series with any book other than the first one. There’s too much back story. The Shanghai Moon is book nine in the series. I can think of no other better praise than to say I’m looking forward to reading the other eight.