This weekend I decided to read through all four of Ed Lin’s books for two reasons: he is coming out with a new book–Ghost Month–and he is coming to LA for a reading that I will be attending. The reading will also feature my good friend, Nicky Schildkraut, who is an all-around amazing poet with a real legitimate book.
For those of you who don’t know, Ed Lin is widely considered one of the best Asian American Detective Fiction writers. He’s been on my list for a long time. In fact, somehow we became accidental Facebook Friends…even though we don’t know each other. So, every time I’m on Facebook, I see his mug and feel guilty about not reading his books.
I’m finishing the third one—Snakes Can’t Run–right now…and it’s totally killer… so much so, that I knew I had to put my book down and write something up. Lin is totally awesome. For me, the first book, Waylaid, is the best—a coming of age story that follows an extremely horny young boy, exploited by his Taiwanese parents who own an hourly rate motel on the Jersey shore. Like all young boys, he’s obsessed with losing his virginity and obsessed with porn…which he finds all over the place in the motel rooms he cleans. You can tell a book like this is good when you want to teach it…and then you realize it’s a little too dirty to teach. Awesome.
The second book—This is a Bust–is super-cool. I love the title, which echoes the noir lingo of detective speech (you’re under arrest) and, also, street slang (this sucks). It’s Lin’s move into the mystery genre and we follow Robert, an alcoholic beat cop—the only Chinese officer in Chinatown—who is used by the department as a tool of PR. His work situation is kind of messed up; he’s the officer who gets paraded around like a show pony at the banquets—the token—to placate the masses. And this only exacerbates an alcoholism that is linked to his stint in Vietnam where he killed a young boy. Oh yeah, his father is an illegal immigrant—paper son, gambler, life-long waiter—who commits suicide. Robert’s got a lot of issues.
I’m finding the third book a bit of a chore. But I’m learning a lot from it. I still love this book but there are three things that are problematic:
1) Exposition: the connection to the last book takes a hundred pages, as we get all the background on Robert. This is undoubtedly necessary but often we get the same descriptions (the midget’s hair is licorice) but kind of done faster, so they lose the power of pacing. I just wish it was shorter.
2) Too Much History: there’s a reason why all of his mysteries won Asian American literary awards. There’s tons of history. It’s like taking an Asian American Studies 101 class. This is awesome in the first mystery because it’s well-integrated. But the third book has even more history and sometimes the characters start talking to each other and citing laws like the Magnuson Act or the War Bride Act of 1943.
3) Not Enough Action: I like action. Tons of murders. Gore. Chases. There’s little of that in an Ed Lin novel. My wife is my ultimate guide for mystery reading. She reads mysteries on the tread mill. If there’s no action, if she can’t turn the pages quickly, if she isn’t filled with adrenaline, she will stop reading. She’s merciless but also has a pretty awesome ass.
So, this is my takeaway from reading three books: Ed Lin is a funny writer who is really great at painting a realistic portrait of Chinatown that is not too sensationalized. You’ll get a lot of history in his books at the expense of plot. But I’m a total fan. I’ll be at the reading to pick up the new book and I’ll give you a run-down on my impressions!