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This isn’t really a review of S.J. Rozan’s A Bitter Feast as much as it is thoughts about her work in general. That’s because A Bitter Feast, the fifth novel in her mystery series, is representative of her stuff up to that point and it’s all excellent enough that — if you like mysteries at all — it deserves your attention.
Rozan is a New York woman who writes about a pair of private detectives named Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. Lydia is a young, American-born Chinese woman who lives and works in Chinatown. Bill is a grizzled, middle-aged guy who works with her from time to time and has a crush on her. The series does something unique by alternating the point of view from book to book. The first novel, China Trade, is about Lydia’s trying to track down some rare China that was stolen from a museum. The book is told in the first person from Lydia’s point of view, and when the case gets complicated, we learn that she sometimes hires Bill to help out with her more difficult assignments.
In Rozan’s next book, Concourse, the focus is shifted to Bill, who’s hired to investigate a murder at a nursing home on behalf of an old friend who runs the security for the home. We learn that Bill’s relationship with Lydia is reciprocal when he hires her to help him out.
The rest of the series continues this pattern so that Mandarin Plaid (about murder in the fashion industry) returns to Lydia’s perspective and No Colder Place (about death at a high-rise construction site) comes back to Bill’s. A Bitter Feast is about unionizing Chinatown’s restaurant industry — a proposition that quickly becomes violent for mysterious reasons — and, of course, features Lydia again.
There are a couple of things that identify Rozan as an outstanding writer. One is her ability to shift moods with each book to match the personality of the main character. Bill’s stories are dark and brooding; noir, really. He’s had a hard life and you feel that in his books. Lydia brings out a lighter side in him though and that’s evident not only in the scenes in which she appears in his stories, but also in the feel of the novels that feature her. The Lydia books are still filled with danger, but Lydia — who feels she has something to prove to her family and her community — is much more positive in her outlook. As a result, her stories are more fun to read than Bill’s, though Bill’s are deeper; more introspective.
It’s easy to see why Bill has feelings for Lydia. She eases the emotional burden he always carries with him. And his feelings aren’t entirely unrepirocated. He’s the one person to whom Lydia doesn’t feel she has to prove herself, and that means the world to her. So, though each novel is self-contained and doesn’t really reference past volumes, you can see Lydia and Bill in this sort of tentative dance over the course of the series as they try to figure out just how they really feel about each other and what they’re able to do about it without messing up their friendship and partnership.
The other thing that Rozan does so well is to bring New York City to life. I’ve only been to New York once, and only for a couple of days, so I don’t know anything about it from personal experience, but I’ve learned more about the experience of living there from one S.J. Rozan novel than from countless Marvel comics, movies set there, and episodes of Sex in the City. Rozan knows her city and what she doesn’t know, she researches until you can’t tell the difference.
You’d also never know from reading the Lydia stuff that Rozan’s not Chinese. And it’s great that Rozan doesn’t just throw in details to show you how much she’s learned. She’s too talented a writer for that. She knows that offering facts just for the sake of showing off inevitably pulls you right out of the story. Every detail she gives you immerses you further into the story and makes it more real; more tangible.
One thing I’ve learned from Rozan’s novels is that New York is a wonderful place to visit. That’s kinda how I felt during my two-day trip when I was younger and the feeling is reinforced by these stories. I usually feel the need to take a break after reading a Rozan mystery. Not from the characters, whom I love, but from the city, which is too big and too concrete for my tastes. Fortunately for me, the next book in the series is Stone Quarry and it takes place at Bill’s cabin in upstate New York.
I’m ready to dive right in.