Last 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.