Though we have an abundance of Asian American focused mysteries today, that has not always been the case, of course. One of the first detectives I read (I loved the movies, too!) was the Charlie Chan character established in 1925 by Earl derr Biggers. Biggers went on vacation in Hawaii and came up with one of the most popular detectives of all time. To Biggers, the Chan character was a major step away from the “yellow peril” stereotypes of Chinese characterization in popular literature of the time as exemplified by Fu Manchu, among others. After all Chan was quite Americanized and displayed wisdom and benevolence.
The Chan films and books today are typically seen in a negative light –the series did use a white actor in “yellowface” to portray Chan and the books are full of racist stereotyping. The reaction is so strong that the four-dozen Charlie Chan films are rarely shown, even on classic movie channels.
Fortunately, we have very intelligent and culturally savvy mysteries on Asian to choose from today. The door to Asian mysteries was opened by Biggers and has been kicked off its hinges by authors such as S.J. Rozan (P.I. novels featuring Lydia Chin in NY City), Lisa See (a trilogy of detective novels exploring US/China relations with her cop heroine, Liu Hulan) and John Burdett (Police detective/ Buddhist Sonchai Jitpleecheep in Bangkok, Thailand), among many others.
Tokyo Kill by Barry Lancet takes us to modern Japan where art dealer turned private investigator Jim Brodie tackles a case for a 96-year-old WWII veteran, worried because two of his former comrades were recently murdered. This is the second in the Jim Brodie series, after Japantown. Lancet is American and has lived in Japan for over 25 years and thus conveys well the culture, the country and the people. Chinese Triads, spies, WWII atrocities and expatriates! It is all packaged in a fast paced, mesmerizing novel – if you want to learn about Japan while enjoying a good story, this is your book.
One of my favorite series is Korean and takes place in the 1970’s. Martin Limon just released his 10th book called The Ville Rat. Limón retired from military service after twenty years in the US Army, including ten years in Korea, and with his knowledge, Limon writes a treasure-trove of Korean history and army life. A young Korean woman dressed in a traditional chima-jeogori is found strangled to death on the frozen banks of the Sonyu River with only a calligraphed poem in her sleeve. CID Sergeants George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are called in by the KNP to investigate since their job is to liaise with Korean law enforcement on matters that may implicate 8th Army American servicemen.
Limon writes about a time and place which I had no prior experiences with – one of the most pleasing features of a mystery to me is to travel where I have not been before though the pages of the books. Like Tokyo Kill by Barry Lancet, this procedural mystery excels at that. Neither of these two books are literary masterpieces, but they do tell a good, realistic story with characters you like and believe in. I have read all of Limon’s Korean series and loved all but one or two in the middle where he veered into too much mysticism for my mystery-loving heart. For a cheap trip to Japan or South Korea, give them a try. My Rating – 4 out of 5 for both Tokyo Kill and The Ville Rat.