Book Review: Paper Son: A Lydia Chin/Bill Smith Novel
Paper Son is the latest in S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin series, about a Chinese-American private detective based in New York who works with her investigative partner Bill Smith. In this book, Lydia is drawn out of her familiar metropolis when her mother pressures her to travel to Mississippi to clear the name of a relative who has been charged with murder. The title comes from the fact that due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, limiting Chinese immigration, many young men who wanted to come to the United States posed as the children of people who had already immigrated to America, entering into agreements to perpetuate the deception. These relatives by contract were called “paper sons.”
This novel had a special relevance for me because it mirrors my own family history. Several members of my family immigrated from China and settled in rural Mississippi, making their living by running a grocery store. Other plotlines, such as involvement in local politics and moving away to other regions, also closely mirror personal family experience. These details are not unique to my own family– such patterns were reflected in many other Chinese families, and it’s nice to see their stories told. I mention this as a form of self-disclosure, as these parallels led to levels of personal connection that I rarely feel with novels, and may have influenced my reaction to the book.
As for the mystery itself, it’s a strong, entertaining read, although certain plot points are so densely interwoven into the plot that some scenes require rereading in order to extract all of the relevant clues and information. The setting is very evocatively crafted, from the palpably sticky air, to the dusty rural roads, to the rapidly emptying and decaying tiny towns. Rozan deserves credit for making this area of rural Mississippi feel like a real place.
It’s notable that the deepest, most powerful, and most memorable relationship in the book is that between Lydia and her mother. No other connection between any other pair of characters even comes close, and Mrs. Chin only appears in the novel’s opening, although she is frequently mentioned and her presence is constantly felt even when she is physically absent. Mrs. Chin’s influence on every atom of her daughter’s being is mentioned all the time. The relationship between the two feels very real, and the mother/daughter tie that binds (and gags, as Erma Bombeck might say) is undeniably Rozan’s greatest literary achievement in the book.
There are some small facets of the book that don’t always land as solidly as others. Some of the discussions of race in the American South veer into plot-stopping lecturing. Korean-American novelist Leonard Chang recently wrote an insightful blog post about some of the issues he faced with the publishers insisting that he treat his Asian-American characters in a certain way: https://www.booklistreader.com/2017/05/30/books-and-authors/publishing-u-how-do-i-keep-my-head-up-while-finding-a-publisher/. Chang references a notable issue, a trope that has become a frustrating cliché– in novels, Asian-Americans are frequently depicted as staring into mirrors, obsessing about their eyes (the words “slanted” and “almond-shaped” are frequently used) and navel-gazing about “otherness.” Lydia Chin engages in a bit of this at a couple of points, and the scenes and thoughts lack the genuineness that burnishes the rest of the book. Doubtless many people engage in this behavior, but the fact that this “contemplating one’s own eyes in the mirror” trope is used so often, and serves often to enforce a theme of difference, it leads me to feel that there have to be more effective and original ways for authors to allow their characters with Asian heritage to reflect on their self-identity.
Overall, Paper Son is a strong, interesting read that does a skillful job of crafting a fictional world and illustrating a long-overlooked chapter of Chinese-American history.
By S.J. Rozan