Even S.J. Rozan can’t really pinpoint when her fascination with Chinese culture began, but by the time she was 15 and considering college, the availability of courses in Asian culture, particularly Chinese, attracted her to Oberlin in Ohio.
The self-described “nice Jewish girl growing up in the Bronx” was certainly not the most obvious candidate to create Lydia Chin, a Chinese-American PI, whose 11th outing, Ghost Hero (Minotaur), plunges her into the world of contemporary Chinese art.
Rozan’s postcollege career path (she spent time as a janitor, jewelry saleswoman, and cinema cashier before beginning work as an architect in New York City in 1980 after grad school in Buffalo) also did not inevitably lead to her writing contemporary mysteries. But early on she was hooked by the world-weary voice of PI fiction, and Concourse (which won a Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America), the first novel she marketed, reflected her mastery of the genre—but it didn’t star Lydia Chin. Her editor at St. Martin’s, Keith Kahla, had heard about Concourse from a colleague at another publishing house and when Kahla contacted Rozan’s agent, he was told that the manuscript, which had collected a fair number of rejections, wasn’t being sent out, but that Rozan had another one that was almost ready to go. Kahla read, and loved, China Trade, which Chin narrates, and which also features a PI sidekick named Bill Smith. When Kahla finally got hold of Concourse, he noted that it was told in Smith’s voice, with Chin serving as his sidekick. He bought both. Rozan thought she was writing two different series that might be sold to different publishers, and credits Kahla with a most innovative series concept—alternating narrator and focal character from book to book.
But there’s much more than a gimmick to the Chin/Smith books, which have also won an Edgar (for 2002’s Winter and Night), among many other honors. Through Chin, Rozan offers a realistic look at a community largely misunderstood by its urban neighbors, and a resourceful, courageous, and independent character, albeit one hectored by her mother, who disapproves of her chosen profession. While the cynical Smith is a more familiar type, both the lyricism of his narrative voice and the complexity of the plots his creator throws him into, place him in a class all his own.
Rozan finds it easier to write as Chin, whom she characterizes as faster moving and more upbeat, even though she describes Chin—who still thinks that she can change the world—as more like herself as she used to be. By contrast, it’s Smith, a darker figure given weightier issues to deal with, who often has only bad options to choose from, who is more like Rozan as she views herself to be now.
Many of Rozan’s fans have strong opinions as to which narrator is their favorite, and, as Kahla puts it, “Each group seems utterly convinced that it knows without question which one is the stronger, more interesting character, and that any sane person would have to agree.” Rozan’s followers are also divided about the detectives’ unresolved sexual and romantic tension. While Rozan is very concerned about her fans, there’s no imminent plan for relieving the tension, but she will do so “in some way when the time’s right.”
Rozan feels validated by the overwhelmingly positive reactions she’s gotten from the Chinese-American community, as well as from readers in Japan, where there aren’t “a lot of strong independent female Asian protagonists for Asian women to identify with,” and where her work landed her the Maltese Falcon Award.
It takes a gifted wordsmith to capture the despair of a facility for the elderly, or the grief when an effort to redeem someone past all realistic hope of redemption falls short, as Rozan does in Concourse. The body of her work persuasively makes the case that, as she put it in her June 2011 remarks to the California Crime Writers Conference, “What crime writers are doing connects deeper into a cultural hunger. Crime is important. When you open up a book that has a body that’s dead, that matters. It matters more than a certain level of suburban angst, it really does.”
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.