Ghost Hero (Bill Smith/Lydia Chin)
by S. J. Rozan
Review by Joseph B. Hoyos
Minotaur Books Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781250006936
Date: 21 August 2012 List Price $15.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Chinese political activist Chau Chun was a famous artist who was known as Ghost Hero to his fans. In New York City, rumors are circulating that new ink drawings created by Chau will be revealed during the upcoming Asian Art Week. Strangely enough, Chau was killed during the riots at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Chinese-American PI Lydia Chin has been hired to locate these new Chaus. Could Chau Chun still be alive or is someone painting fakes in order to create political controversy? Lydia solicits the help of her partner Bill Smith and another Chinese-American PI, Jack Lee. Soon their lives and careers are threatened by both Chinese gangsters and government employees of the People's Republic of China (PRC).
S.J. Rozan is my hero for creating Ghost Hero--a surprisingly spectacular mystery that deftly merges the glamor of the art world with the tumultuous, often heartrending, machinations of foreign politics. The tension increases when Rozan adds into the fray highly organized gangsters, slimy art gallery owners, and promotion-seeking State Department employees. Adorable, lovable PI Lydia Chin (who lives with her meddlesome mother) narrates this intriguing tale. Playful bantering between her and her "white baboon" partner, Bill Smith, adds much comic relief. A potential for steamy romance is created when Lydia meets the handsome, charming Jack Lee. During their investigations, both Bill and Jack wear costumes and assume false identities that often create hilarious consequences.
Ghost Hero becomes highly intriguing as Lydia, Bill, and Jack turn Manhattan's art world upside down while frantically searching for the new Chaus. All the while these PIs, and everyone they encounter, keep repeatedly asking, "Are they real? Are they fake? Are they real? Are they fake?" Dizzy with exasperation, I began wondering if I was reading a book about Pamela Anderson's anatomy. Then there was the question about whether or not Chau Chun was still alive and living under a false identity. Alas, many of the characters are not who they pretend to be. This is due to the fact that these politically-inspired Chau paintings are highly controversial; they will remind the world of a bloody past that many people would prefer to remain forgotten. These paintings have the potential of bringing wealth, embarrassment and even death.
My favorite scenes in the novel are when Bill Smith pretends to be the boisterous, obnoxious Russian gangster, Vladimir Oblomov. He wears a lot of gaudy jewelry (bling), refers to everyone as "boychic" or "girlchic" and substitutes his "w's" with "v's" in a phony, Russian accent that is simply hilarious. Also hilarious is Lydia's old-school Chinese mother who is constantly needling Lydia about marriage. She refers to Jack as hollow bamboo--Chinese-looking on the outside but hollow on the inside. For many years, I attended church services at the Chinese Community Center in Norfolk, Virginia. A frugal Caucasian among mostly Chinese members, I was often referred to as an egg--white on the outside, yellow on the inside. The Chinese-American children often called themselves bananas--yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Many of them, like the Chinese-American characters in Ghost Hero, attended Chinese School on Saturdays. They all excelled in academics and played string instruments.
What I liked most about Ghost Hero is its emphasis on love, especially love of family. It is painful to love someone who is miles away from us, living in a foreign country, especially when they are a political prisoner of a communist government. The idea brought tears to my eyes. It made me appreciate living in a free country. Our government isn't perfect, but it remains better than most. The Tiananmen Square Massacre is a reminder of this. Furthermore, not only does distance separate us from the ones we love, but also time. Lydia, like many of us, is living with an aging parent. Eventually, time and death rob us of those we love.
Ghost Hero has a shocking, but warmhearted, ending that will delight fans of the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith mysteries. Its author, S.J. Rozan, has crafted an intriguing, wholesome mystery that is suitable for all ages. The recurring question of whether or not the Chau paintings are authentic reminded me so much of another winsome mystery involving artwork, Carson Morton's Stealing Mona Lisa. Because innumerable reproductions of the Mona Lisa are made, the thieves have difficulty distinguishing the original Mona Lisa from the forgeries. I loved both novels for their humor, thievery and historical intrigue and highly recommend them to art aficionados.