A mystery focused on Chinese-owned grocery stores in the Mississippi Delta? Who knew! And I don’t mean some investment scheme by contemporary mainland Chinese; I mean Chinese families that have lived in Mississippi for a century now, i.e. American-born Chinese, whom we usually think of in connection with urban Chinatowns or perhaps wealthy suburbs. I had never known about this piece of American history, as I missed the NPR report on the Delta Chinese two years ago.
But S.J. Rozan clearly didn’t miss it. She has sent her New York-based private investigators Lydia Chin and Bill Smith to Mississippi in her latest mystery novel, Paper Son. I highly recommend it, though I have a few reservations.
In the first place, despite my opening paragraph, this isn’t a history book.
Or is it? Ostensibly it’s a mystery novel, like Rozan’s previous dozen or so books in the Chin/Smith series, but a lot of it really feels like a history book. A fascinating one, let me add, but that might not be what you’re looking for. As I’ve said elsewhere, I like mysteries that have a strong sense of place, and Paper Son certainly has that. I admit that there’s a distinct pleasure in reading a novel that takes place locally and gives you a true sense of Boston or whatever, but there’s also a distinct pleasure in learning about a place that’s new to you, whether it be Greenland or Botswana or even the Mississippi Delta. In all those cases — which I have selected carefully — you have to trust the author to get it right. Even though it’s fiction, it still has to be geographically and historically accurate. Of course that’s easiest to judge when the locale is local, so to speak, but a good author can convey a sense of authenticity for any location. (And then we do some research and verify our intuitions. Trust but verify, as a certain former president liked to say.) Checking Rozan’s information from that NPR show and other sources has convinced me that she has gotten it right. Your mileage may vary, especially if you object to any characterizations of Mississippi as basically racist and reactionary. Most of what she puts in her characters’ mouths sounds right to me, with one odd exception where a local uses “y’all” when addressing a single individual. And I find it highly implausible that a Chinese-American liberal Democrat could be a viable candidate for governor of Mississippi, but what do I know? Maybe Bob Dylan was right and the times they are a-changin’.
You may wonder about the characters’ names. You might even think that Lydia Chin sounds Chinese and Bill Smith doesn’t. You would be right. Therein lies a bit of the sociological tension here, especially since racial matters play such a prominent role in Mississippi. This isn’t Rozan’s first historically themed Chin-Smith novel; she has explored restaurant unions, Jews in China, and so forth, all in the context of writing fiction. You should probably read the earlier novels in the series first — but give this a try even if you haven’t. And you probably won’t figure out early on who the murderer is, unless you’ve read too much Agatha Christie.