“Paper Son” by S.J. Rozan

Paper SonLast week, I wrote about S.J. Rozan’s 2002 novel Winter and Night, part of her series featuring New York private eyes Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. That one was a “Bill book,” told from Smith’s point of view; her latest novel, Paper Son, is a Lydia story. Lydia’s formidable mother has never entirely approved of her daughter’s career as an investigator, so it’s quite a shock when she orders Lydia to travel to Mississippi, of all places, to help a relative who’s been accused of murder. “That she would bring me a case and demand I take it is something I never would’ve imagined five years, or five minutes, ago,” she marvels.

The born-and-bred New Yorker was previously unaware that her family had kin in the Deep South, but her mother reveals that they do indeed have relations who settled in Mississippi to work in the grocery business. Lydia’s father’s cousin, Leland Tam, owned one of the few remaining stores in the Delta operated by a Chinese family, serving a mainly African-American clientele. When he was murdered in his store, his son, Jefferson, was arrested for the crime. “We found Jefferson in the store, Leland’s body not cold yet, Jefferson’s prints on the knife, and him without a tale to tell,” explains the police detective investigating the case. And when Jefferson escapes from prison, disappearing into thin air, it complicates things even further. Why would an innocent man go on the run?

With Bill along as a helpful interpreter of all things Southern—he grew up in Kentucky—Lydia begins to look for clues that might reveal Jefferson’s whereabouts, and tries to determine who else might have had a reason to kill Leland. It eventually starts to seem like this modern-day murder may be related to events that happened decades ago.

Rozan manages to cram a lot of history into this novel, from the Great Flood of 1927 to the immigration from China to the U.S. of so-called “paper sons” in the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Luckily, she’s such a skillful writer that these sections flow seamlessly into the more action-packed parts of the story. After an eight-year gap since their last adventure, it was a pleasure to catch up with Bill and Lydia again, and the interesting and well-researched bits of history provide a nice bonus.

“Winter and Night” by S.J. Rozan

Winter and NightI’ve read most of the books in S.J. Rozan’s Lydia Chin and Bill Smith series, but somehow I’d missed 2002’s Winter and Night, despite the fact that it won the Edgar Award for Best Novel. Rozan took an extended break from her series—there was an 8-year gap between 2011’s Ghost Hero and Paper Son, which came out just a couple of months ago (it’s on my TBR shelf).

One of the unique things about Rozan’s series is that each book is narrated by one of her two sleuths; “Lydia books” would alternate with “Bill books.” Winter and Night is a “Bill book,” and those tend to be a little more noir. Lydia’s stories always contain some comic relief from her force-of-nature mother, whom Lydia lives with in New York’s Chinatown. Winter and Night is pretty heavy going, without any breaks for levity.

It’s also one of those “This time it’s personal!” novels, as Bill’s 15-year-old nephew turns up in New York, picked up by the cops for trying to mug a drunk. Bill has been estranged from his sister and her family, so he hasn’t been a part of Gary’s life; however, he takes the boy back to his apartment, hoping to get him to confide why he ran away from home. “I need to do something,” is as much as he can get out of him before Gary manages to make a break for it.

Bill and Lydia go on the hunt for the teen, which brings them to the football-mad New Jersey town where he and his family had been living for the past few months. Gary was on the team, which made him part of the in crowd in Warrenstown; with a big game coming up, it seemed like a particularly inopportune time for him to disappear.

As the two private eyes are searching for the boy, the body of one of his high school classmates is discovered, and the local cops naturally assume that Gary killed her and went on the run. Meanwhile, Bill’s brother-in-law, Scott, is absolutely furious with Bill for what he sees as unwelcome interference in his family’s personal business.

At its heart, Winter and Night is a meditation on men and violence, both on the football field and in real life. Bill and Scott wind up in confrontations several times, which drives them both to peaks of rage: “Our eyes locked; in the color flaring in his face, the thrust of his shoulders, I could see how ready he was to explode. I clamped my jaw shut to keep from saying words to set him off, because part of me wanted that to happen, wanted him to rush me, wanted to fight Scott Russell right here, now, in my own place… Scott wanted what I wanted right now and I knew it. To hit, kick, beat someone down, exhaust yourself. To take the fear and helpless rage and turn them into something you can tell yourself you’re proud of. To force someone to betray himself, to make him fail. To win. To prove you’re really there.”

Winter and Night is very much of its time; it took me back to the days when every private eye had to have a hacker or two on retainer to dig up information that could now probably be found by anyone with a Facebook account and Google. Bill is also addicted to his ever-present flip phone. At almost 400 pages, this is a hefty read, but it’s well-written and thoughtful, and while the technology has changed, many of its themes continue to resonate today.

“The Wedding Party” by Jasmine Guillory

The Wedding PartyMaddie Forest and Theo Stephens have something in common: they are both best friends with the same person, Alexa Monroe. With Alexa’s wedding on the horizon, she has naturally asked both of them to be in her wedding party, which means they’ll be seeing a lot of each other. There’s a big problem, though. Maddie and Theo have never gotten along.

Maddie is a stylist who spends her days helping her clients find fashionable outfits; Theo thinks she’s a superficial nitwit who only cares about clothes and celebrities. Theo works for the mayor of Berkeley; Maddie thinks he’s a condescending know-it-all. Then one night after Alexa drags her to Theo’s birthday party, he and Maddie wind up having what both of them firmly insist is a one-night stand.

“Relax,” Theo tells her the morning after. “This will never happen again, and Alexa will never find out.”

However, a few weeks later, it does happen again… and while their sexual connection is obvious, they have nothing else in common, so they’re just having some fun, right? In any case, whatever they’re doing can’t last, so there’s no point in telling Alexa. Or anyone else, for that matter. The two start sneaking around with each other, until something happens that forces them to confront the fact that they might actually have developed feelings for each other.

This is the third book in Guillory’s series (Alexa and her fiancé Drew’s story was told in the author’s first novel, The Wedding Date), and while the enemies-to-lovers trope is well-worn, she handles it with humor and heart. She draws them both sympathetically, giving the reader insight into what makes them tick. Theo’s smartypants behavior masks his deep-down insecurity. And Maddie’s hard outer shell hides a soft, vulnerable center. These opposites actually have a lot in common, and while a happily-ever-after is guaranteed—this is a romance novel, after all—Guillory makes getting to that point a lot of fun.

“The Right Sort of Man” by Allison Montclair

The Right Sort of ManThe cover of this book reads, The Right Sort of Man: A Mystery. And that’s accurate, since it is a whodunit, and a very good one. However, it comes with a second, bonus mystery as well: who is Allison Montclair?

Usually, when I’m reading a book by an unfamiliar author, I Google them to find out a little bit more information. The Right Sort of Man seemed incredibly polished for a debut, and that’s because this is not the author’s first novel; “Allison Montclair” is a pseudonym. According to an interview, “she has written historical mysteries before, as well as ‘fantasy, science fiction, horror, non-genre fiction, and theatre.'” (By the way, if you click on that link, the man in the accompanying photo is the author of the article, Neil Nyren.) Montclair’s editor at St. Martin’s Press suggested the idea for the series, so presumably her previous historicals were also published by that house, which doesn’t exactly help narrow it down since they have a pretty large author list.

As a last-ditch attempt, I emailed my friend Cara Black, who blurbed the book, and even she had no idea—the person at St. Martin’s with whom she spoke refused to spill the beans.

So enough about the enigmatic author, let’s talk about the book. It takes place in London immediately after World War II. Rationing’s still in effect, and there are bombed-out buildings everywhere. Two very different women meet by chance at a wedding and decide to go into business together, opening a marriage bureau to match eligible singles—”The war is over, and people want to start normal life up again in a hurry.”

Iris Sparks is savvy and streetwise, having spent time during the war doing things she still can’t (or won’t) discuss. The aristocratic Gwendolyn Bainbridge was married to an officer in the Royal Fusiliers who was killed in the war; the shock of his death sent her to a sanitorium, and when she got out, she found out that her in-laws had assumed custody of her young son. She needs something to keep her occupied (and out of the house she shares with her domineering mother-in-law).

The business is a roaring success out of the gate, until one of their clients, Tillie La Salle, is found murdered, and the man Gwen and Iris had matched her up with is accused of committing the crime. Scotland Yard is so convinced they’ve found their man that they close the case. Iris and Gwen are equally convinced that he’s innocent, but there’s also the fact that the ensuing scandal could destroy their business, so they have little choice but to investigate.

The book really takes you into the world of postwar London, where desperate women scheme to buy nylons on the black market and bulldozers are busy scooping up the rubble left behind by the German air assault. The two lead characters are exceedingly well-drawn; Gwen must cope with her still-overwhelming grief and also try to fight for her son, while Iris lives in an apartment paid for by her married lover and sometimes has a penchant for acting recklessly (she carries a knife in her purse, and she’s not afraid to brandish it if she feels threatened).

While it would be fun to know a bit more about the author, the most important thing is that she’s written a captivating book, one which will make readers eager for the next installment in this promising new series.