S.J. Rozan’s Paper Son is a perfect return for PI’s Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. The two travel to Mississippi to clear Lydia’s cousin of a murder charge. S.J. delivers both a compelling private eye story and a look into the culture of Chinese Americans in the south and its history. S.J. was kind enough to take a few questions from us.
1. How did returning to Lydia and Bill after almost a decade feel?
Well, the seed for Paper Son started to grow in 2014, the first time I went to Mississippi, which was only three years after Ghost Hero came out. So I never felt as though I’d left Lydia and Bill, even though I’d written other things. And I’d done a couple of short stories with Lydia’s mom, so I’d been in and out of that world. I found I could just slide right into Lydia’s voice; I didn’t feel rusty at all.
2. How did you first come across the Chinese culture in Mississippi?
I went to Clarksdale to visit my friend Eric Stone, a writer and photographer who’d recently moved there. He showed me Clarksdale’s Jewish cemetery, which was beautiful, and promised to show me the larger, older one in Greenville the next day. And then he said the magic words: “It’s not far from the Chinese cemetery.” I hadn’t known the Chinese had enough of a community in the Delta to have a cemetery. “Sure,” Eric said. “You know, the grocers.” I did not know the grocers. But the more I learned, the more fascinating the story seemed. When I got back to NYC I did some research, then went back to Mississippi to talk to some of the remaining Chinese folks. Then more research, then a third trip. Then I started the book.
3. What is most fun about putting your characters in a new environment?
Lydia’s reactions to the South were pretty much mine. Everything that knocked her for a loop had thrown me, too. I enjoyed being able to articulate those things. Sweet tea? The one-drop rule? Football worship? These are real things in Mississippi.
4. Was there anything to keep in mind when writing about the South?
I worked hard to portray the people accurately, dialect and all, but without slipping into parody. It’s easy for us in the rest of the country to patronize and dismiss the Deep South but that’s a cheap trick and not worthy of the people I met. Even the bad people — and, like anywhere, there are many — are whole people and deserving of full portraits.
5. Captain Pete, Lydia’s cousin who serves as a guide, is a fun character. How did you go about constructing him?
All I knew when Lydia and Bill went to Clarksdale was that Pete was a former Navy man and a professional gambler, raised in the back of the store. He’s one of those characters who opens the door and is there fully formed. It doesn’t always happen but a writer knows when it does. In these cases all the writer has to do is get out of the way. I’m sorry; I know that sounds sappy. But it does sometimes happen — Lydia’s cousin Linus is the same — and it’s a writer’s greatest joy when it does.
6. Will there be a shorter wait for the next Lydia and Bill book?
Absolutely. It’s a Bill book and I’m wrestling it to the ground now.
Buy your copy of Paper Son here.
With us celebrating Stark Houses twenty years this month, we decided to draw attention to the three books they all have coming out in August. All have the stamp of fifties hard boiled crime and noir told with style and raw emotion. Take on any of these three if your tough enough.
Stool Pigeon by Louis Malloy
An angsty, gritty tale of a Little Italy cop obsessed with nailing the the gangster he grew up with. His quest risks both his life and morality. Louis blends the story’s dense emotions and New York street life into an entertaining cop tale. How this didn’t get turned into a film with Rod Stieger, Lee J. Cobb, or Brando, I don’t know.
Three books from Lion Books, right next to gold medal when it came to producing great fifties crime fiction. Whether the New York private eye yarn, a funny take on a missing gambler and the hustlers on the look out to use him, or the rise and fall of a border vice lord, these stories move fast and take no prisoners, embracing their quirks. Reading all three is like getting into a fiction propelled time machine.
Death Is A Private Eye: The Uncollected Stories Of Gil Brewer edited by David Rachels
Gil Brewer delivered believable menace with a muscular yet lean prose style that followed lower middle class types driven by lust or greed, and often both to their dark fates. Here Rachels unearths a treasure of his writing, mainly from the seventies, seeing light for the first time.
Rob Hart continues to build on his promise as a writer. After his five novel arc of unlicensed private detective Ash McKenna, delving into several different sub genres, he now melds thriller, satire, and a touch of sci-fi. The result is The Warehouse, a novel about a future that could occur by the the time your finished reading the book.
Global warming is frying Earth, automation is on the rise, employment on the drop, but consumerism is still chugging along. Hence, The Cloud, an amazon on steroids, that has become a literal refuge. The employees, live, shop, and dine in the place where they work, Mother Cloud facility, factory, mall, and apartment complex in one.
Hart views the the story through three characters. He first introduces us to Gibson Wells, the founder of Cloud, communicating through his blog posts. He informs the public that he is been diagnosed with cancer and is taking a farewell tour of the Mother Cloud facilities across the country as he decides on who will be taking control of the company. Paxton, a newly minted security guard for a Cloud facility, takes the role of protagonist. His back story of his small business being put out by Cloud will sound familiar to some who remember the amazon-Hachette feud several years back. His boss tasks him with finding the distributors of a designer drug, employees are using in the facility. He falls for Zinnia, another new hire, except she is on the shipping floor. She is also working as a spy for another corporation, trying to discover the energy source that powers the facility.
The story’s expert craftsmanship moves both plot and characters along, threading the two with emotion. Hart could have gotten away with a dark satire about the lack of humanity in runaway capitalism with the characters as symbols, but he realizes we can’t truly think about what a story has to say unless we feel. He brings each character to emotional life. Paxton is the perfect underdog. A regular guy who has lost out so often, he’s got to win something this time. Zinnia proves to be a perfectly constructed bad ass lady, who we slowly sympathize with as she has to fight her own sympathy for Paxton and her “fellow workers.” As in previous works, Rob Hart shows his talent at dealing with people fighting the behavior that life has shaped for them.
Gibson Wells proves be a creation of nuance. Introduced to us by telling us he’s dying, we are already connected. He has both a sense of humor and purpose. He is out to fight global warming. At first he appears to be a descent if sometimes misguided man. However, blog post after blog post, we glimpse more of the ego that leads to the hubris of men who make decisions that affect the many.
Hart also builds a believable world, less Mad Max than just crappy. It has become a world owned by the one percent with everyone else working for them, if they’re lucky, and becoming more aware of that reality that day. The people are more accepting of the circumstance and search to numb it, whether through drugs or consumerism. a few choose to fight. The book captures the inertia of it and how something could give at any moment.
The Warehouse serves as a keen observation of things to come without ever losing track of the people who live and work in that future. Hart realizes we can’t fear for humanity if we feel no human contact with the characters. With The Warehouse he creates a frighteningly big world seen through an intimate scale.