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AND GRANT YOU PEACE by Kate Flora: Book Review

Portland, Maine police detective Joe Burgess is feeling his age.  It’s not simply the long hours and his belief that the cops can never catch up with the criminals, it’s his new-found family responsibilities and his awareness of the racial and religious tensions that are evident since people from Somalia and the Sudan have moved into the city.

As Joe is sitting in his police car, enjoying a brief moment of quiet, a young boy runs up to the car shouting, “Fire at the mosque and someone’s in there.”  Joe rushes to the building and finds, by breaking into a locked closet, a teenage girl holding an infant.  With the help of a bystander, Joe is able to get the girl and baby out of the building alive, but the baby dies by the time he arrives at the hospital.

When Joe goes to the house of the mosque’s leader, Imam Muhamud Ibrahim, he is surprised by the lack of interest shown by the clergyman and his followers about the fire.  Although Joe understands that the violent political history of Somalia has made these immigrants fearful and distrustful of the police, he is still taken aback by the lack of cooperation he’s receiving.  No one will admit to knowing anything about the girl and the infant.

Maine’s overall population is 95 percent white, 85 percent white in Portland.  The influx of African refugees, mainly from the Sudan and Somalia, has brought racial and cultural tensions to a high point.   As with other earlier immigrant groups, the Sudanese and Somalis have brought tribal ties and tribal conflicts with them, and their manner of dress and worship mark them as culturally different from the majority of Mainers.  None of this is helping Joe or his fellow officers find out who is behind the mosque’s fire. 

The girl in the hospital is not Somali or Sudanese, although it looks as if the baby she was holding was part African.  The girl has not spoken a word since she was rescued from the fire, and it is obvious that she is terrified of something or someone.  That she has reason to be is made clear when an attempt is made to abduct her from her hospital room.

In this, the fourth novel in the Joe Burgess series, Kate Flora has portrayed her protagonist and his colleagues in a state of flux.  Joe is not the only one with family/personal issues that are intruding on his police performance.   Stan Perry is even more argumentative than usual, possibly because his girlfriend has just announced that she is pregnant, unnerving news for a man who has no desire to be a father.   Terry Kyle is trying to balance his work schedule with being the sole caregiver for his children and fearful that any misstep might mean that his mentally ill ex-wife could get custody.

Kate Flora has written a deeply moving mystery of a police force and a city as a whole grappling with newcomers from a very different place.  The characters are extremely well-written, realistic and believable, and the plot rings all too true in today’s complex world.

You can read more about Kate Flora at this web site.

 Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site







SNAKES CAN’T RUN by Ed Lin: Book Review

As much a snapshot of New York’s Chinatown in the 1970s as it is a mystery, Snakes Can’t Run by Ed Lin gives the reader an insight into the various factions of an ethnic community at a turning point in its history.

The snakes in the title are not of the reptile variety but rather snakeheads, what today we more commonly call coyotes.  They are Chinese American citizens who bring over illegal immigrants, in this case to lower New York City.   Not surprising is that both snakeheads and coyotes are the names of animals in that their treatment of the men and women they bring to the United States, whether it be via ships to New York’s Chinatown to work in restaurants and laundries or via trucks to Arizona to work in the fields, is inhumane.

Robert Chow is a New York City police detective whose late father was an illegal immigrant. Chow was a huge disappointment to his father when he decided not to go to college and joined the Army instead, then came home from Vietnam to become a policeman.  The elder Chow had higher aspirations for his son, aspirations that were out of his own reach as an immigrant with an incomplete grasp of English.

And Robert Chow has other demons besides his memories of his father.  He came back from Vietnam an alcoholic, and when the novel opens he’s only been sober for four months.

Now Chow is surrounded by illegals in his own neighborhood, where he’s the poster boy for diversity in the Police Department. Chinatown is split between two groups–the mainland Chinese and the Taiwanese Chinese.  Although Taiwan has been replaced by mainland China as a member of the United Nations, the United States still did not have full diplomatic relations with the Republic of China in 1976 when the novel takes place, and tensions among the Communists and the Taiwanese are running high.

Adding fuel to the fire is the increased number of illegals coming to New York from China, mainly Fukienese.  Like most immigrants, they arrived in America poor and uneducated and willing to do anything to stay here.  But by coming here illegally, with the help of Chinese Americans who owned businesses, they couldn’t object to low wages, poor working conditions, and lack of benefits.  And in order to pay back the money advanced by these merchants to the snakeheads, or owed by the immigrants themselves to the snakeheads, these illegal aliens were basically indentured servants, many working until their deaths trying to pay back what they owed.

Although there is a double murder early in the novel, I felt Snakes Can’t Run was more of a sociological study than a mystery.  There’s a great deal of history in it and a lot of background of Chinese and Chinese American feelings during the late 1970s, and the mystery takes second place to that.  But one of the reasons I love reading mysteries, as I have written before, is because they take me outside my own world.  I was pulled into the gritty world of Chinatown–its food, its superstitions, its people. And it made for very interesting reading.

You can read more about Ed Lin at his web site.