By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
Death by Dumpling
By Vivien Chien
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2018
Now that she is an adult, the last place Lana Lee thought she would end up is back at her family’s Chinese restaurant.
But life happened — a bad break-up and dramatic walkout from her job have landed her back where she started and she’s working to put her life back together. Dealing with a mother determined to marry her off is initially the biggest thorn in her side. That quickly changes as their property manager, Mr. Feng, dies as a result of shrimp dumplings from Lana’s family’s restaurant.
Everyone on staff knew about Mr. Feng’s allergy, so as people start questioning how it happened, people — including the police — quickly begin to think that it was murder. And the restaurant staff are soon the top suspects. So Lana becomes an amateur detective and works to clear her family and friends’ names.
“Dumpling” has all the makings of a great cozy mystery: From a down-on-her-luck heroine and a cast of multifaceted characters, who will have readers questioning their innocence, to the various red herrings and twists and turns that will keep readers guessing “whodunnit” till the mystery is revealed.
Lana is a strong character who readers can relate to. She’s not perfect — in fact, in some areas, she’s in a bit of a rut. But she’s trying — like the rest of us.
In addition to doing a great job of introducing readers to Lana and the other characters, Chien creates a character in itself in the Asian shopping plaza where the story takes place, a refreshing new setting compared to the usual bookstore or bakery featured in many cozy mysteries. We see the tight-knit community that has been formed among the different business owners and employees, as many have worked side-by-side for years, if not decades. And as with any small community, there is no end to drama and in-fighting that are cause for ongoing amusement and intrigue.
Red Mandarin Dress: An Inspector Chen Novel
By Qiu Xiaolong
Minotaur Books, 2007
After he is asked to look into a sensitive corruption case, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Department, takes action immediately — by taking leave from work. But while he is out of the office, the body of a young woman is discovered in a highly congested area of the city, with the only notable thing about her being the red mandarin dress she is wearing. Then a second body is found in another busy part of town — also wearing the same kind of red mandarin dress — and Chen soon finds himself back on active duty to help with the manhunt.
The newspapers are soon speculating that Shanghai is being targeted by its first serial killer and the Communist Party is anxious to have the murders resolved as quickly as possible.
Taking place in the mid 1990s, “Red Mandarin Dress” gives readers a glimpse into China’s post Cultural Revolution. We see how the Party and government operate, which is different from what most readers in the Western world are accustomed to.
In addition to Chen, Xiaolong has created an entire cast of complex characters who work together (though sometimes against each other) to try and solve the case. These characters include Detective Yu Guangming, the acting head of the department while Chen is on leave, and Yu’s wife Peiqin, who does a little bit of her own detective work to find who is killing the young women.
While “Red Mandarin Dress” is the fifth book in Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series (something I didn’t realize until I was already halfway through the book), readers won’t need to have read the previous books as it works as a standalone story. But as my regular readers would know, I’m a sucker for a series and this introduction into Chen’s world has got me hooked, so don’t be surprised if you see more of his adventures in future columns.
The Good Son
By You-Jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim
Penguin Books, 2018
One morning, Yu-jin wakes up to a strange metallic smell of blood and a call from his brother asking if everything is okay, as he had missed a call from their mother in the middle of the night. Initially, Yu-jin tells him everything is fine, but then he realizes he is in the same clothes from the night before and covered in blood — not mud as he originally thought. If that weren’t enough, once he is out of the shower, he discovers his mother’s body in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs of their posh Seoul duplex.
Try as he might, the 26-year-old can’t remember much about the night before — he has had seizures for most of his life and has trouble with his memory. All Yu-jin has is the faint impression of his mother calling his name. But he doesn’t know if she was calling for help or if she was begging for her life.
This leads to a three-day search for the truth, as Yu-jin frantically tries to uncover what happened.
“The Good Son” is a fast-paced psychological thriller, giving readers insight into how the mind and memory work. We follow Yu-jin as he works to find out who killed his mother — even questioning if he was the one who did it. In addition to Yu-jin’s memories of that tragic night, Jeong gives readers a glimpse into Yu-jin’s life prior to that night, both recent and from years past. We see the twisted relationship between mother and son and slowly learn the truth about their family right alongside Yu-jin. All of which could have led to Yu-jin killing his mother.
“The Good Son” will have readers on the edge of their seats and Jeong does a great job of portraying the urgency Yu-jin feels to learn the truth. We are right there with him, wanting to know what really happened to his mother and whether or not he was involved in her demise.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.