Books: The Indifferent Detective

March 14, 2013

The protagonist of Ed Lin’s mystery
One Red Bastard, Robert Chow, is, on
the surface, made of the stuff one would expect of a Chandler-esque
mystery/noir protagonist: he has a selectively specific moral code, he keeps
company with several figures of disreputable quality, and he finds himself
engaged with several women of questionable character. What separates Chow from
the common noir protagonist is his struggles with heritage and identity. Though
Chow speaks Cantonese more fluently than many of the younger characters living
in Chinatown, he also pushes his heritage away as much as he can. When the
force hires a younger Chinese officer, Chow is relieved he will no longer be
the token Chinese representative sent to restaurant openings in Chinatown; he
ultimately feels that he can only succeed in his department by attempting to
shed as much of his heritage as possible.

The central mystery that drives the
narrative also contains elements that Chow struggles with internally. Just as
the New York City of the late 70s is experiencing a painful push towards
gentrification, so, too was mainland China experiencing major growing pains.
The daughter of Mao Tse-tung is seeking asylum in the US following the arrest
and execution of the Gang of Four and the subsequent tainting of many of Mao’s
family members; she sends an attaché ahead of her to deal with the process.
When the attaché arrives in the US, the already tense relationship between
mainland refugees from China (specifically Fuzhou), Kuomintang-loyal Taiwanese
immigrants, and long-establish Cantonese residents threatens to erupt. And when
the attaché is murdered (perhaps by Robert’s girlfriend, a reporter who also
works at the UN), those tensions explode, with each side presenting ever-more
preposterous reasoning behind why the other side would murder the attaché. The
solution to the murder itself is not really that interesting or original.
However, the image of so many competing interests in such a small, insular area
of Manhattan makes for compelling reading.

Lin’s characterization of Chow is
interesting when the socio-political context of Chinatown comes to the
forefront of the story. Like many noir/mystery narrators, Chow at times can
appear disengaged to the point of boredom; really, the only time he expresses
clear emotion is when he is defending his girlfriend against the accusations of
others, and when he expresses concern for the welfare of his partner’s
marriage. His policework to find the killer is fine but unexceptional. His
seeming indifference to the political boilerplate that Chinatown has become
speaks to Chow’s own internalized oppression – he will not engage in political
conversations with anyone, and is especially irritated when he comes across any
political protest, whether put on by communist or Kuomanting supporters. Chow,
in a way, is Lin’s way of personifying the feelings of many first and second
generation Asian Americans – aware of the political baggage their parents or
grandparents brought with them, but too concerned with blending in to America
to bother to engage. The only time he acknowledges his heritage is to mention
it in the negative, saying that it is impossible for Chinese people to forgive
each other; indeed, he says, “If Chinese people forgave each other, it would
shatter the plots of every Kung-Fu movie.”

            Photo of the Author by Gregory Costanzo

It does say something about the
racial tensions of New York City in the 1970s that the core relationship of the
novel is between Chow and his black, Vietnam veteran partner, Vandyne. Lin
rightfully explores how each has hit a glass ceiling; he also subtly addresses
the point that, despite the tensions between black and white America, Asian
America can also become an easy target for discrimination. Vandyne, despite the
racist climate, has made full detective; Chow, despite working just as long as
hard, has not made the grade yet. Chow experiences far more harassment about
his race and ethnicity than his partner does, is clearly passed over for a
promotion because the department still needs him to be the Chinese face of the
police force, and hates speaking Cantonese unless he absolutely has to. When
Chow first speaks to the younger Chinese officer at his precinct, he mentions
that the cadet, whose last name is Ong, is already nicknamed “Ong Kong Phooey”.
When Ong responds that nicknames don’t matter, Chow tells him that “It does
matter, and if you don’t stop it now, it’s just going to get worse. You’re
going to be ‘Fu Manchu’ next.” For Chow, the long held scars have cut him
deeply, and he tries to bury it; for Ong, as a third generation Chinese, his
oppression is so internalized that he doesn’t even recognize that it’s there.

It’s never quite clear which side
of the political debate Lin is more sympathetic to – or, really, if he even
cares that much. What Lin seems to have set out to do is create a noir
protagonist of color, and to undermine the seedy depiction of Chinatowns that
has existed in the popular mainstream as being populated by nameless and
faceless Chinese people. In doing this, Lin has succeeded: Manhattan’s
Chinatown is alive with characters like the young immigrant determined to rail
against capitalist culture, or the slimy businessman who runs a tiny-circulation
newspaper out of the heart of Chinatown. The murder at the center of the story
is almost beside the point; Chinatown is the message, with Chow as its
indifferent explorer.

Noah Cho teaches English at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, California.


Noah Cho

Film Editor

Noah Cho is Hyphen’s film editor. You can find him on Twitter @a_multiracial, where he mostly tweets about his dog and
putting cheese on ramyun.