Saturday, October 15, 2016

Dead Soon Enough (Juniper Song #3) by Steph Cha

Those of us interested in mystery series, crime novels, and police procedurals are usually on the lookout for the next series by a newcomer that is going to excite us. A Korean-American private investigator called Juniper Song headlining a series set in L.A. looked promising, and I jumped in at book #3 in the series to see what Steph Cha had done with the form.

The voice in this novel is young, smart, and challenging. Song widens our eyes with her opener:
“When I was twenty-two, I sold three sets of eggs for a total of $48,000. I was broke, bored, and quietly depressed, and had no strength to fight the call of easy money…
…Apparently, [Asian-American egg donors] commanded high premiums for rarity on the market…”
Everything about Song’s story as it unfolds in this installment of her adventures is current, relevant, and raises important issues designed to make us think…think not only about her perspective as an Asian-American woman but also about corporate law, the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century, online shaming and stalking, and surrogacy in childbearing. There is a lot going on, but Cha manages it handily.

The fictional private eye Philip Marlowe and his creator, Raymond Chandler, are mentioned explicitly in this novel more than once, drawing our eye to parallels Cha hopes to highlight. There is a hard-boiled, noirish feel to this piece, despite its clear generational separation from those earlier novels. The comparisons are still a bit aspirational, as there were areas in this novel that did not measure up to the more limited word count of the Marlowe detections.

What did work was the somewhat world-weary tone Song takes in the beginning, which is plenty hard to pull off for a twenty-something with a degree from Yale. Somehow Song manages to make us believe she is one of those disaffected bright young things who is simply bored with the more usual job prospects she could be seeking out. Cha perhaps plays a bit with our stereotypes and expectations about terribly bright Asians here, but she has my sympathies for this approach, and I could laugh soundlessly with her. Besides, intelligence can be used to make most jobs interesting, and in this case, she would have missed out on private detection if she had been more aggressive uncovering well-paid employment opportunities.

What also paralleled Marlowe and worked well was the consistently moral standpoint from which Song conducted her investigations and follow-ups. She had to make some tough decisions about people that may not have been completely straightforward, but her real-life judgements about truth and honesty asked a complicated question about where those two things got everyone in the end.

The final half of the book was beautifully fluent, well thought-out, and moved at a pace befitting the more usual form of a crime novel or police procedural. The first half was workman-like, explanatory, and needed tightening. Young women were the focus of this novel, but sometimes their thought processes, chatty conversations, and questionable choices are simply not interesting enough to hold our attention.

Overall, the attempt to raise important, thoughtful issues in a crime novel and its unusual point of view through the eyes of a Korean-American elevated this genre novel beyond its peers. Though I liked the idea of a brainy woman pulling off an escape from some pretty rough characters in this novel, it did occur to me that her lack of physical prowess might be a hard sell down the line. Perhaps Juniper needs to take some exercise in the form of self-protection skills that might be more useful to her than the gun she yearns to carry.

Hardcover, 292 pages, Published August 11th 2015 by Minotaur Books,
ISBN13: 9781250065315

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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