The creator of the Robert Chow mysteries (One Red Bastard, 2012, etc.), set in New York’s Chinatown in the 1970s, turns to contemporary Taiwan for this ambitious, muddled tale of murder in a culture that sees itself as both the center of the world and overshadowed by its powerful mainland rival.
In the seven years since Cheng Jing-nan last saw Julia Huang, he’s thought about her every day. After going through schools in Taipei together, the two departed for the U.S., Jing-nan for UCLA, Julia for NYU. Both of them ended up back in Taipei when Julia flunked out of college and Jing-nan returned to his father’s side during his last illness and then took over both Unknown Pleasures, the family’s food stand, and the mountain of debt his family had run up. But they didn’t end up together, although Jing-nan always intended to return to Julia the minute he was in a position to marry her. Now he’s missed his chance. Julia’s been found shot to death at the side of a highway in the scanty costume of a betel-nut girl, one step removed from a prostitute. Dazed with grief, Jing-nan seems like the most unlikely investigator ever. Nor is he the cleverest or the most resourceful detective. But his questioning of his old schoolmates gradually reveals unwelcome news about some of the people he thought he’d known best, including Julia herself. At the same time, his sex-first romance with music-store clerk Nancy Han, formerly the mistress of a disgraced financier, forces him to face some equally unsparing revelations about himself and the love he cherished for a woman he hadn’t seen since they graduated from high school together.
The teeming Taipei setting and the tormented hero combine to create a furious energy that transcends a whodunit plot too mundane even to capture Jing-nan’s full attention.