"A conventional murder mystery made truly exceptional thanks to the charismatic and refreshingly unconventional protagonists."– Kirkus Reviews
A young woman in Shanghai experiences romance and anguish during the Cultural Revolution in this historical novel.
At the start of 1976, Du Chun Ming is already a woman wholeheartedly in love. The 22-year-old first met Fang Si Jun four years ago on the first day of her factory job. Chun Ming lives with her parents, including her engineer father, Jing Zi, who works so much that he aggravates his high blood pressure and heart disease. His job often entails updating Chinese technology, putting him at odds with the ongoing Cultural Revolution that deems modernization as a sign of capitalism. Si Jun’s stance on China’s current sociopolitical state is essentially to keep one’s head down and stay mum. He expresses concern over apparent anti–Cultural Revolution comments Chun Ming’s beloved cousin, Jian Hua, and his girlfriend, Lin Nan, have made. Such statements are especially dangerous when the government is searching for individuals spreading “political rumors.” Jing Zi disapproves of Si Jun’s attitude, as the young man is seemingly only invested in self-preservation. But when the government designates people close to Chun Ming as counterrevolutionaries, lives could be ruined or even lost, and anyone linked by mere association is, in the public’s eyes, equally guilty. Chen’s (Back Bay Investigation, 2019, etc.) love story in a country of social and political unrest is, perhaps unsurprisingly, often dour. Chun Ming, for example, is incessantly distressed about Jian Hua and Lin Nan’s safety; her father’s worsening illness; and whether Jing Zi will support her relationship with Si Jun. Likewise, the Cultural Revolution is an imposing presence, as characters are under constant threat of accusations or someone misinterpreting a humble utterance or act. The author retains a simplicity that benefits the story, which centers on the political upheaval adversely affecting the protagonist and the relatively few people surrounding her. Concise prose further aids the narrative’s consistent momentum, as the Cultural Revolution, even near its end, continues to devastate citizens’ lives.
An engrossing, taut story that skillfully incorporates a real-life Chinese sociopolitical movement.
In Chen’s (An Intangible Affair, 2017, etc.) latest series installment, Bostonian amateur detective and biologist Ann Lee sets out to prove the innocence of a friend accused of murder.
Ann knows that potential in-laws can be burdensome; after all, her former boyfriend’s stepmother turned out to be a killer in a previous book in this series. So she understands when her friend Betty Foreman is stressed by her fiance Peter Shi’s mom, Emily. Betty thinks that the overprotective parent has made her son a “mama’s boy”; indeed, Peter takes his mother’s side whenever she and Betty have an argument. It’s not surprising that Betty is a suspect after Emily’s body is discovered at the bottom of a flight of stairs. The dying woman’s 911 call, in which she named Betty as her murderer, only solidifies the police’s case. But Ann believes Betty’s claim of innocence; she says that she argued with Emily on the day in question but left when the old woman threw a vase at her. With Betty’s trial imminent, Ann decides to try to debunk the damning evidence against her. Luckily, she has help from her best friend and partner at their detective agency, Fang Chen, who’s a chemist as well. The investigation involves interviewing Emily’s neighbor, who called 911 regarding the women’s loud squabble, and talking to Emily’s sister in Hong Kong. As in preceding novels in this series, Chen delivers a brisk story with a simple but tight mystery that’s often heavy on dialogue. Along the way, the author has Ann meticulously develop a theory to fit the evidence—that is, one in which Betty isn’t guilty of murder. Romantic relationships also complicate matters, as Ann is currently dating Betty’s older brother, Seth Foreman. Ann’s investigation, along with Fang Chen’s input, has an organic feel: Every conjecture has a clear source, and nothing that she deduces feels like a wild guess. Still, the ending, while plausible, gets a bit convoluted as Ann juggles multiple theories of the crime.
Another tale of incisive sleuths that’s short but thoroughly enjoyable.
Two amateur detectives wonder whether a married couple’s isolated deaths were more than an accident and suicide in Chen’s (Death Comes to Lake Como, 2016, etc.) mystery-drama.
Fang Chen’s understandably distraught when hearing the news that his scientist pal Jim Ting has committed suicide. Having known Jim since they were Boston University housemates decades earlier, Fang Chen doesn’t believe Jim’s the type to kill himself. The scientist, who’d spent years on a new cancer drug, recently lost his wife, Dory, who’d succumbed to a venomous snakebite. This leads to speculation that Jim’s death was indeed a suicide, stemming from guilt over having murdered his wife. But there may be another reason: Jim had carried on a decadeslong affair with CPA Jamie Chou. Flashbacks reveal Jamie and already-married Jim first meeting at BU and the inevitable start of their affair. Despite having boyfriends and even living with a man, Jamie truly loves Jim and looks forward to their getaways, which wane in frequency as the years pass. Jim’s reluctant to leave Dory, at least not until their three children are grown and living independently, while an increasingly despondent Jamie considers the likelihood that he will never get a divorce. But does any of this amount to murder? Amateur sleuths Ann Lee and Fang Chen are determined to find out. The author takes a strange but intriguing approach this time with her recurring protagonists, as Ann and Fang Chen appear only sporadically. They’re mere observers, a literal role for Fang Chen during Jim and Jamie’s initial encounter. The story centers on Jamie, with readers privy to numerous glimpses of her life and musings, most of which the detectives don’t know. As a melodrama, it soars, providing sympathy for two characters engaged in an extramarital affair. Jamie, in particular, struggles as an immigrant, watching a less-experienced co-worker (and a U.S. citizen) bypass her professionally. The mystery, meanwhile, sits primarily on the back burner, and Ann acknowledges that the solution she eventually volunteers is conjecture. Readers, however, do get answers, and the end result for Jamie is both fascinating and sad.
The returning investigators have little to do, but readers gain an emotionally rich tale of ill-fated love.
The latest murder case for amateur detectives Ann Lee and Fang Chen takes them on an intercontinental investigation in this thriller.
Ann’s gumshoe partner/best friend, Fang Chen, and ex-roommate Jane Tian are newlyweds honeymooning at an Italian hotel facing Lake Como. Email correspondence between the friends begins as touristy descriptions but soon zeroes in on intrigue: someone finds nurse Tina Xin’s body floating in the lake. Ann and Fang Chen both suspect foul play, which authorities later confirm, but he can’t do much investigating in a foreign country. However, by sheer fortuity, Ann’s apartment neighbor in Boston, Lao Xin, is Tina’s brother. A postcard from Tina suggests that she’d found the female Red Guard who killed their mother during the Cultural Revolution, but before Xin can provide Ann with specifics, he’s dead from an overdose. Ann’s convinced that the murderer is covering her tracks, starting with Tina’s possible blackmail in Italy. But she needs to find the elusive Red Guard first. Using Xin’s address book, Ann contacts names from the U.S., while Fang Chen, in China for his and Jane’s wedding party (courtesy of her mother), takes a solo excursion to Shanghai. If Ann can’t gather rock-solid evidence, though, she’ll have to extract a confession from a killer. The author (The Fatal Sin of Love, 2015, etc.) excels at understated mysteries, exemplified by series protagonist Ann, a nondrinker who prefers quiet get-togethers but happens to be an exceptional sleuth. The novelist takes a rather charming approach this time, detailing Ann’s ongoing emails with Jane and messages to Fang Chen. The former consist primarily of Ann describing Italian scenery or her meeting with boyfriend Alan Rourke’s parents, while the latter tend to focus on juicy morsels of the murder case, including someone’s shady past. Notwithstanding, it’s an omniscient narrative that further deepens the mystery: nosy neighbor Ms. Brown may become a witness, and series regular DS Paul Winderman assists with much-needed background checks. Ann could be putting herself in danger near the end, beefing up suspense. And despite a later plot turn that relies a little too heavily on coincidence, the resolution satisfies both logically and dramatically.
These resolute protagonists and self-proclaimed mystery buffs should certainly appeal to genre fans.
An emotionally resonant coming-of-age story set during China’s Cultural Revolution.
When Li Ling receives a letter notifying him of his former lover’s death, his wife notices his distress and inquires about it; virtually the entire story is contained within his flashback narrative. He tells of being captivated by Zhang Lily from the moment he met her as a young schoolboy recently returned to Shanghai from Hong Kong. The two quickly became inseparable, eventually including Big Head, another young boy, in their childhood adventures. But their lives were turned upside down by the communist rise to power. Suddenly, Zhang Lily’s father, a professor, and Li Ling’s father, a surgeon, were stripped of professional esteem; schoolchildren were forced to labor in factories and fields; suspected dissidents were subjected to forceful re-education and public censure. Torn apart by the demands of an oppressive state, the lovers promised to hold each other in their hearts forever. Years of drudgery passed before college admissions were reinstated on a large scale, at which point the couple coincidentally found themselves enrolled at the same institution. However, the reunion, while joyful, proved to be not quite what Li Ling expected. Chen (The Mystery of Revenge, 2013 ) offers a somewhat meandering story, but the sedate pacing allows for a deeper exploration of the effects of the Cultural Revolution on individual lives. Dialogue is generally natural and authentic, though some sections are unrealistically didactic (e.g., a stilted discussion of the importance of free elections). The plotting is similarly uneven, a mix of engaging plot twists with those that lack credibility, as with an accused rapist’s initial reluctance to defend himself due to his worrying about his accuser’s potential punishment. Repeated references to the forget-me-not Lily gave Li Ling can be a bit heavy-handed, though the motif itself is endearing. Minor editing errors (e.g., “we were just prawns in the manipulative hands of the state”) are pervasive but don’t detract significantly. The flashback device is necessary for a surprise conclusion that, though only mildly surprising, is nonetheless satisfying.
An inconsistent but appealing novel about life and love within the strictures of a repressive regime.
In Chen’s (The Mystery of Revenge, 2013, etc.) thriller, a Boston college student and an associate professor travel to Beijing to prove that their friend’s suspicious death was premeditated murder.
Ann Lee and Dr. Fang Chen don’t agree with the police theory that Shao Mei’s death was a robbery gone wrong. Her son, John, found the apartment ransacked, but that doesn’t explain an empty bottle of Moutai—a notably expensive Chinese liquor that Shao Mei couldn’t possibly afford—found at the crime scene. Ann and Fang Chen suspect poisoning—their friend had bled from her nose and mouth—but can’t come up with a motive; Shao Mei had few friends in the United States and was better known back when she was a professor at Beijing University. Clues, including a poison that may have been used, seem to point Ann and Fang Chen to Beijing, where the duo may have hit pay dirt when they learn of an out-of-print book that connects Shao Mei to, unfortunately, a second murder. And when Ann is nearly run down by a car in Beijing, the two realize that a killer may be only a few steps behind them. The author’s mystery story is reinforced by its amateur sleuths; Paul Winderman is the detective officially working the case, but Ann and Fang Chen are the ones who, when trying to make sense of their friend’s murder, begin inadvertently piecing together evidence—narrowing a motive down to keeping a secret hidden or wanting a valuable that Shao Mei had possibly stashed somewhere. Their Beijing excursion is not only productive (it’s where they first hear of the book), but also frequently amusing, as Fang Chen, who’s from Singapore, takes advantage of his first time in the Chinese city to go sightseeing, quickly learning that his favorite loafers aren’t the best for hours of walking. The murder mystery has just the bare essentials—very few clues and only a couple of viable suspects—but the short novel is a quick read, and any red herrings regarding evidence or accusations would have been underdeveloped with so little narrative. Chen does a splendid job of connecting the world of this book to her own prior work; there are various mentions of Yi-yun, Ann and Shao Mei’s friend and Fang Chen’s ex-wife, who was also murdered.
A conventional murder mystery made truly exceptional thanks to the charismatic and refreshingly unconventional protagonists.