Bill Smith and Lydia Chin are private investigators in Chinatown (that’s in NY if you know nothing about these things. Like me.) that always seem to find more trouble than they bargained for. In their debut novel, Lydia is hired to find some missing porcelain, donated from a wealthy widow to a struggling Chinese cultural center. Chaos ensues. Kung fu happens. (Or is it tae kwon do? Maybe both.)
First, the likes. I really like the characters of Bill and Lydia. They are flawed, they fight and are obnoxious too each other when they are tired and hungry. Bill, especially, has been written with complexity and nuance. Lydia is a little more straight forward (and dare I say, stereotypical??) but I’m not sure how qualified I am to make that judgment, knowing pretty much next to nothing about the New York Chinese community. Maybe I just got a little annoyed with how often her need to find a man is the central personal issue she faces (granted, it’s all family pressure and at least Lydia isn’t the sort of character to make that her driving goal). And to be fair, that loses some of its prominence further into the series. But Bill, he’s interesting.
Second, the author is fantastic at plopping you down into a new world. Maybe it’s just because I love to eat (or maybe because I don’t get to eat as much as I want to lately) but we seem to be in accord with the general emphasis we place on food in culture. In the 7th book, Reflecting the Sky, Bill and Lydia travel to Hong Kong and Rozan had me hooked by the squid and root vegetable skewer street vendor. But really, it’s not just the food. She is adept at putting her readers in a world they may not know. She describes well, but not too thoroughly (or boringly). She makes the cities and towns come alive like they are characters of their own. In some of the books they are.
But let’s not forget these are crime novels. There are plenty of red herrings, wild goose chases, and of course, your surprise ambushes that the heroes narrowly escape in the nick of time. Sometimes I can guess the who (but almost never the why). Lots of things are a surprise.
And finally, I love the themes. Yes, yes, I’m a bleeding heart hippie liberal commie wanna be. I know. But I love it. Rozan loves to root for the outsider and the underdog, and it tugs at my heart strings every time. I can’t help it.
So, dislikes? Well, Rozan alternates novels from Bill and Lydia’s perspective. In theory, I like this. In practice, I dislike that the best stories are all Bill’s. I’m probably just being sensitive, but still.
Second, what’s up with the F bomb every third sentence? Somewhere around book 3 or 4, Rozan really lets loose and flies free in the swear department. I’m a bit of a prude about this sort of thing (do people, real people – not movies characters, really talk like this on a daily basis? Is it just that people are on their best behavior around me? Is it because I don’t live in New York?) but I’m on book 8 now, and I feel like it’s getting a bit extensive.
But really, that’s my biggest complaint. These maybe aren’t what you’d call literature, but they are fun, quick reads. Perfect commuting companions! If you are a fan of mystery/crime novels, give them a shot!
K’s rating of the Bill Smith/Lydia Chin PI series by S. J. Rozan: 7.5/10 mangoes