Saturday, May 3, 2014

Death Money by Henry Chang - Book Review

Henry Chang's Death Money (ShHo Crime, 2014, 225 pages, $25.00) is a police procedural with a difference. Set in the, to most people, mysterious, even alien, nether world of the Chinese immigrant community in New York City, the story follows Detective Jack Yu, as he investigates the murder of a young Asian man found hung up on a tangle of branches in the middle of the East River on a cold January night. Jack Yu, referred to as Jack throughout the narrative, is called in to follow up on the mysterious death because he is Chinese, and stereotypically well-equipped to undertake the investigation. Throughout the fast-paced narrative, there always lies an undertone of racial awarenss and conflict between the Chinese detective and other elements of the police force in both their dealing with him and with the Chinese (and broader Asian) community. Although this is the fourth in a series of novels, reading the previous books is not necessary for the enjoyment or understanding of Death Money.

Having been assigned the investigation of the mysterious death of a hard to even identify Asian man, Jack must seek to place him before trying to find his killers. His search takes him into the depths of Chinatown in Manhattan as well as satellite Asian communities in Brooklyn and Queens which only exist in mythology for casual visitors who journey into Chinese neighborhoods to get better (and/or more authentic) Chinese food than might be available at suburban strip malls. The world of illegal immigrants smuggled into the U.S. through Canadian access or directly from Hong Kong or the mainland and a Chinese underworld with direct connections to mainland China and around the world (think of a Chinese mafia with hundreds of years of tradition behind it and a more impenetrable language for western ears and eyes) is brought to life. Add to this the gang rivalries of different family groups and gangs that continue to exist on a worldwide scale, both criminal and financial. Jack is caught between the Chinese suspicion of his having become a cop, police racism, and corrupt power relationships that lead to his being warned off by Internal Affairs after a powerful Chinese family complains of harassment.

Chang keeps the story moving along while giving it a high degree of verisimilitude by providing lots of Chinese words, particularly for food and insults, with immediate translations. He populates Death Money with lots of interesting characters including an aging Chinese psychic, a hipster informant, three Mexican workers, and a multi-generation family which has taken the American success route from degraded immigrants to successful (and marginally legal) business people, to vicious gangsters in three generations. As Jack closes in on the killer, his world becomes increasingly dangerous. I was impressed by the touching points between descriptions of the lives and power interactions explored in this novel and the same issues as described it Matt Taibbi's recent book The Divide, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. Making these connections gives Death Money an added weight I had not expected.

Henry Chang
Henry Chang is a New Yorker, a native son of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. His poems have appeared in the seminal Yellow Pearl anthology, and in Gangs In New York’s Chinatown. He has written for Bridge Magazine, and his fiction has appeared in On A Bed Of Rice and in the NuyorAsian Anthology. His debut novel Chinatown Beat garnered high praise from the New York Times Book Review, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, among others. Henry Chang is a graduate of CCNY (City College of New York). He has been a lighting consultant, and a Security Director for major hotels, commercial properties, and retail businesses in Manhattan.

Henry Chang's DeathMoney (SoHo Crime, 2014, 225 pages, $25.00) is a quick read, but turns out to be both a novel with excellent narrative drive and thought provoking about ethnic relationships in the powerful and mysterious world of the Asian communities of New York. I intend to read backward in this intriguing series of detective novels. Death Money was provided to me as an electronic download by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read in on my Kindle.