A Bitter Feast by S.J. Rozan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
"[...] threadbare and thin villagers choose cold, hungry, two-month trips in the lowest holds of cargo ships, all packed in the same windowless, rolling room, breathing stale air, never coming on deck, for their chance to work sixteen hours a day on the slopes of Gold Mountain [...]"
My fifth novel by S.J. Rozan - and coincidentally the fifth installment in the Chin/Smith series - has turned out to be a pleasant surprise. The amazingly good
Winter and Night
set the expectations bar pretty high and the next three novels that I have read and reviewed here on Goodreads were disappointments. Luckily in A Bitter Feast (1998) the author is back to form with an interesting, well-written, and almost cliché-free novel.
The plot opens with a strong scene: members of the Chinese Restaurant Workers' Union are marching for "Justice and a Living Wage" and picketing the Dragon Garden restaurant. Lydia Chin's friend hires her to look for four Dragon Garden employees who disappeared. Since one of them has been an union organizer it is quite likely that the disappearance is related to the labor issues. Other clues also point to a powerful Chinese businessman, H.B. Yang, as having connections to the case.
Soon the pace of the plot picks up, Lydia is assaulted in her office, her employment is terminated, but in a strange twist she is almost instantaneously re-hired by Mr. Yang himself to continue her assignment. Lydia goes undercover as a dim sum lady in the Dragon Garden restaurant. In the meantime a bomb explodes in the union headquarters, and some connections with government agencies begin to emerge. The ending is a bit hard to follow because of several meandering conversations, but relatively plausible until the cinematic climax occurs with its mandatory shootout. Why, oh why?
Despite the silly and pointless shootout I like the book quite a lot: there is much more in it than just a clever criminal plot. The reader is bound to appreciate all the hardships of Chinese immigrants' lives. The oblique, allusive, circuitous ways of Chinese conversations are portrayed convincingly and the reader can even learn a little bit about a dim sum place as seen from the waitress' side. But, most of all, Lydia Chin is a really compelling character who comes across as a real person, with her various quirks and biases. Bill Smith is more in the background in this novel, which is a plus because his character has so far felt not quite convincing. Had the author omitted the gunplay I would have rounded the rating up.
Three and a half stars.
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