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GHOST HERO by S. J. Rozan: Book Review

Lydia Chin and Bill Smith are together again. They are private investigators in New York City; given Lydia’s ethnicity, they do a lot of investigating in Chinatown.

Quietly drinking tea in a Lower East Side tearoom, Lydia is approached by a new client.  He introduces himself as Jeff Dunbar, a man interested in contemporary Chinese art.  Lydia is a bit put off by this, wondering if he has chosen her for her “Chineseness” or her knowledge of Chinese art; if so, she thinks, he’s in for a rude surprise.  Her lack of knowledge of art, most especially contemporary Chinese art, is profound.

Dunbar tells her it’s not her knowledge of the art scene that made him come to her but her reputation at finding people or things. What he wants her to look into is a rumor circulating around the city’s galleries that several previously unknown paintings by Chau Chun, a Chinese artist who was killed in Tiananmen Square in the 1989 uprising, have surfaced in New York.  Dunbar portrays himself as a new collector who wants to find out if these painting exist and, if they do, to get them, authenticate them, and sell them.

But Lydia isn’t taking him at his word.  After he gives her a retainer and leaves, she searches through the web for information about him–no hits.  He gave her a card with his name and cell phone number but no company name, address, or e-mail.  And his clothing and demeanor don’t shout money to her either.  Her suspicions are aroused.

Intrigued by Lydia’s description of and questions about Dunbar, Bill Smith brings her to a friend of his, another Chinese-American private detective, Jack Lee. After hearing Lydia’s story about her new client, Jack shares his own–he too has just been approached by a client to find these paintings.  But his client wants to find the paintings, if they exist, to declare them fraudulent.  The client, a Professor Yang at New York University, was a friend of Chau Chun’s in Beijing, and he knows there are no recent or undiscovered paintings by the artist because he was there when the artist was killed.

There’s a strong sense of Chinatown in this novel, with its winding streets and myriad restaurants; the food descriptions alone make the book worth reading.  There’s also a fair amount of humor in this novel, more than I remember in previous books in this series.  The art scene is portrayed as a dog-eat-dog one, with money being the prime motivator.  Lydia’s stereotypical mother makes an appearance, as does her cousin, a nineteen-year-old techie who can find out just about anything Lydia want to know.

The only problem I had with the book with the lack of a crime. It’s really a “cozy” in the sense that there’s little violence, little crime, and no deaths.  The mystery and the plot are strong, but I would have enjoyed a bit more tension than was present.

You can read more about S. J. Rozen at her web site.