By S.J. Rozan
Pegasus Crime, 2019
It’s a long way from New York’s Chinatown to Clarksdale, Mississippi, the setting of Paper Son. It’s S.J. Rozan’s 12th novel featuring the delightful detective duo Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. They are back after an eight-year hiatus, since Ghost Hero (2011), and it appears age has not withered them one whit. Nor has it softened Lydia’s singularly intense, very old fashioned Chinese mother.
Turns out that a cousin Lydia never knew existed has been arrested in Mississippi for the murder of his father (yet another relative she was unaware of). Mama wants Lydia to hightail it down there to sort it all out. This is unsettling, to say the least, as she has always strongly disapproved of her daughter’s profession. And even more surprising, since she’s never been a fan of Lydia’s partner Bill, who she calls “the White Baboon,” she insists that he go with her. This turns out to be a blessing, as he points out, since he was born and bred below the Mason-Dixon line: “Y’all are forgettin’ ah’m from Kin-tucky…. Ah kin talk South’rn with th’best of ‘em.”
While the evidence against the cousin, 23-year-old Jefferson Tam, appears strong—he was found next to his father’s corpse and his prints were on the bloody knife that caused the fatal wound—Mrs. Chin is adamant that he’s innocent: “He’s your father’s cousin.”
So faster than you can say grits and blues, the duo is in a Chevy Malibu heading down Highway 61 like in the Bob Dylan song, which, for Lydia, might as well be Mars. Once in Clarksdale, they connect with Captain Pete Tam, the cousin who was the original bearer of the bad news to the Chins. Pete and Bill immediately hit it off, both are ex-navy, and Pete confides that he’s called Captain because of his extensive time on the river’s gambling boats. This, as far as Lydia is concerned, explains why she never knew about her ole Miss cousins.
Before Lydia and Bill can get to Jefferson, he escapes from jail. It’s an act that certainly doesn’t do anything to enhance his innocence. The local cops, the Coahoma County deputies—one black, one white—show up at Pete’s. As far as they are concerned, Jefferson is guilty as sin. Pete, of course, doesn’t agree. And after they come up empty handed and reluctantly exit Pete’s premises, he gives Lydia and Bill an earful pertaining to his low opinion of that particular branch of the local law enforcement.
As the tenacious twosome ratchet up their pursuit of Jefferson, they are immersed in the evocative world of the Chinese in the Mississippi Delta. They soon discover that there are not a lot of families in the region without a skeleton in the closet. Close knit communities are alike the world over. They meet up with a charismatic bluesman, Big Bone Stafford, who is a font of local gossip. We dive into the traditions of “paper sons” (Chinese who immigrated to the U.S. with fraudulent papers obtained by the time-honored method of bribery) and their shop-keeping history in the South. But the coup de grâce of clues is Jefferson’s laptop, which they acquire with a bit of, shall we say, fancy footwork.
Enter one of my favorite Rozan characters, another of Lydia’s cousins, Linus Wong. We first met him in Winter and Night (2002). Wong, a crackerjack computer hacker and world class techie, operates his own e-security firm out of a garage in Queens. The motto of Wong Security is: “Protecting people like you from people like us.” His only employee is his Goth girlfriend, Trella Bartolli, a force to be reckoned with and no slouch in the techie department. As Lydia knew, getting Linus and his lady on board was a no brainer. As she observes:
Neither he nor Trella commented on my absolute faith in their hacking abilities. No disclaimer, no “We’ll try.” Everyone should have such cousins.
Once they dispatch the computer to Linus they are back on Jefferson’s trail. It is a trail full of twists and turns that takes them deep into unlikely places. Rozan elegantly weaves the web of old secrets, the complexities of race, family loyalties and family history, ancient tangled roots that can turn out to have deadly consequences generations later, into a dazzling narrative. Paper Son is as compelling as it is entertaining. This is the triumphant return of a consummate pro.
—Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.