A missing person mystery is delicately entwined with a heartbreaking story of migration and loss.
The Vietnam of the past and the Las Vegas of the present are vividly evoked in this debut novel in which hard-boiled noir is seamlessly blended with reminiscences of exile. A two-fisted policeman from Oakland, California, finds both his life and sense of certainty upended by Suzy, the Vietnamese wife who abandoned him with thwarted desires and unanswered questions. It turns out he’s not the only ex-husband looking for her. She’s now fled from a short-tempered smuggler named Sonny, who’s also a refugee from the fall of Saigon and leans on the reluctant cop hard enough to make him search her last-known whereabouts, Vegas. What the cop finds, to his surprise, is Suzy’s estranged daughter, Mai, a professional poker player who’s something of a tough-talking, hard-boiled case herself; though he also recognizes in Mai more than just a strong physical resemblance to Suzy: “I could see her mother’s stubbornness….All the loneliness that comes with refusing anything sensible the world gives you.” The author intersperses the mercurial tale of the search with long, detailed letters written to Mai by Suzy recounting the wrenching, often perilous passage from Vietnam in the mid-1970s to a Malaysian refugee camp. It is in this testimony that Tran’s writing achieves a fluidity and grace that make you share his enigmatic antiheroine’s aching loss and sense of dislocation. (One of the most resonant of these memories involves using pork fat to help gas up a boat used for escaping Vietnam and how it makes the hungry passengers remember restaurants and kitchens of their past lives.) He's on less solid footing bringing the policeman’s first-person narrative to life but nonetheless skillfully identifies the roots of whatever is stalking Mai, Suzy, and others with recriminations and regrets; much like the Vietnam War itself, which created such torment and whose sorrowful legacy resounds generations later.
Right off the bat, Tran displays the most admirable and worthwhile gift a serious thriller writer can have: compassion toward even the most disreputable of his characters.