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FAMILY BUSINESS by S. J. Rozan: Book Review

New York City’s Chinatown, comprised of twelve enclaves within the city, has the largest ethnic Chinese population outside of Asia.  Little wonder, therefore, that there’s enough crime to keep private investigator Lydia Chin and her partner Bill Smith very busy indeed.

When Big Brother Choi dies (a natural death), he leaves a vacuum not only in the Li Min Jin tong that he controlled but in Manhattan itself.  He owned a multi-story apartment building in the heart of Chinatown, and a development group wants to buy it, demolish it, and then rebuild it as part of a mixed luxury and middle-income condominium, Phoenix Towers.  The possible sale has produced a heated debate by those who say the destruction of the building would shatter the heart of the community versus those who say it would provide a much needed economic boost to the area.

The building has been left to Choi’s niece Wu Mao-Li, known as Mel.  She knows that her uncle Choi didn’t want to sell the building, but there are significant forces that are pressuring her to change her mind.  Following a call from Chang Yao-Zu, her uncle’s lieutenant, she hires Lydia and Bill to accompany her to her uncle’s apartment to find out if there’s anything he left her to further explain his position and shore up support for her refusal to sell.

Waiting for them in the building’s lobby is Tan Lu-Lien, the tong’s financial officer.  She leads the way to Choi’s apartment, where his lieutenant, Chang Yao-Zu, was expected to let them inside.  When he doesn’t appear, Mel uses the key her uncle had given her, opens the door, and the quartet see Chang’s bloody body lying across a tea table.

While the police investigate the murder, Mel asks Lydia and Bill to continue looking into her uncle’s affairs in the hope of strengthening her position vis-a-vis the building’s future.

The tension rises as the various players make their positions known re the disposition of Choi’s property.  In addition to Mel, there’s Ironman Ma, a tong member, who wants to search the property because he thinks Choi had hidden treasure somewhere on the site; Jackson Ting, an area developer who needs to demolish the building so he can build the development he’s counting on to make him a major player in the city; and Mel’s sister Natalie, who is being blackmailed to pressure Mel into selling the site.

Also involved is Lydia’s brother Tim, a lawyer in a white-shoe law firm who is having mixed emotions about the building.  As a member of Harriman McGill, he should favor the Phoenix Towers development because Jackson Ting is a client of the firm.  On the other hand, he’s a board member of the Chinatown Heritage Society, which opposes it.

As always, Ms. Rozan brings not only her protagonists but the entire New York Chinese community to life.  The descriptions of the people and places in Manhattan and the dialog between Lydia and Bill are wonderful.  Readers will feel as if they are walking the streets and eavesdropping on Lydia and Bill while the duo is eating ice cream at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory or enjoying tea at Miansai.

Ms. Rozan’s work has won the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, Nero, and Macavity awards for Best Novel and the Edgar for Best Short Story.  You can read more about her at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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