Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics

Books: Familiar Melody, New Song

Hardboiled fiction set in Los Angeles has a rich history -- from Raymond Chandler’s gin-soaked Hollywood boulevards to Walter Mosley’s post World War II-era Watts, Los Angeles has been a prime setting for Sam Spade-esque forays into the clandestine and sultry. A few key elements distinguish mysteries into the category of hardboiled fiction: An often-cynical “hardened” detective, a sleazy setting with a criminal underbelly, and the inevitable danger lurking around every corner.

Steph Cha’s Follow Her Home is a fresh evolution of the genre. Gone is the surly male detective with a soft spot for shady broads in need of help. Gone, too, is the Los Angeles of yore -- no orange orchards in Pasadena here (R.I.P.). Instead Cha introduces Juniper Song, a Korean American woman in her twenties who is a self-professed junkie of the detective novels by Raymond Chandler. Like Chandler’s Philip Marlow, Juniper finds herself a protagonist in her own mystery when she takes on an amateur case for her good friend Luke. He asks her to find out if his lawyer father is having an affair with a pouty, sleepy-eyed paralegal named Lori Lim (cue mysterious seductress). In one scene Lim is described as  “[sliding] her tongue over the jutting corner of her jagged tooth and clamped it lightly in a lazy smile. Her dark eyes were sugar-glazed and sleepy, glitter lids fluttering and drooping. A lightweight.” In this case, the detective is completely indifferent to femme fatale Lim’s charms.

Things quickly -- perhaps too quickly -- take a sinister turn as Juniper finds herself waking up on a bench the next morning after being knocked out in front of Lori’s house. In true hardboiled fashion, Juniper bypasses the police and stubbornly follows her own hunches. However, unlike Marlowe and others, Juniper enlists the help of her friend Luke and ex-boyfriend Diego. Having others involved definitely complicates matters, and the mystery quickly threatens both Juniper and the people she cares about.

The way that Juniper falls into detective work is more reminiscent of Mosley’s unlicensed detective Easy Rawlins than the cool-headed professionalism of Chandler’s Marlowe. While completely inexperienced in the ways of the private detective, Juniper is game for the role, even as danger literally follows her home in the form of a dead body in her car trunk. And unlike Marlowe, she feels weak and scared in the face of true physical threat. As the simple tracking job turns into something more complicated and dangerous -- involving rogue henchmen and sexual power play, Juniper toughens up and continues to do so over the course of the novel. This isn’t the story of a professional, but the origin story of someone who might be someday.

                                   Steph Cha

The larger intrigue in the novel is Juniper’s past. As she suffers trauma and stress while unraveling the mystery at hand, she remembers her first real attempt at solving a mystery -- one that involved her younger sister Iris. As the mystery surrounding Lori unfolds, so does Iris’ story. And Juniper’s guilt about failing in her past propels her headfirst into getting to the bottom of the current mystery.

While Cha pays very clear homage to Chandler -- indicated in the enthusiastic use of similes and Juniper often wondering what Marlowe would do -- she definitely transcends his influence to make the story her own. What’s refreshing about Follow Her Home is the unique perspective that an Asian American woman’s voice offers to this traditional genre, something that goes beyond its usual tropes. Because what’s at the center of both mysteries are fetish photographs of Asian women and, again, while this is a nod to Chandler’s own debut novel, The Big Sleep, where the mystery begins with a young woman drugged and photographed in the nude, Cha pushes the mystery into the fairly racially charged topic of Asian fetishism in Western culture. As a Korean American character, Juniper’s perspective on the subject is anything but objective, and her desire to solve the mystery takes on a personal drive.

 And it’s a perfect topic to play out in the city of Los Angeles -- home to an immense Asian population and, specifically, the largest population of Koreans outside of Seoul. Following Juniper into a Koreatown hostess bar was an almost surreal reading experience. While completely familiar to me as a Korean American living in this city, it’s not exactly a setting one is used to reading about in popular fiction. Some added dimension to the milieu is the relationship between Lori and her mother, a tough-as-nails Korean immigrant whose desire for her daughter to have a better life pushes her into murky ethical waters. While these complex dynamics are at the core of the mystery, I wished Cha could have pushed it a little further. Aside from it being the common thread between Lori and Iris, there wasn’t much discussion or effect beyond that. Alas, there was a nail-biting mystery to tend to.

Cha does a great job of keeping the suspense taut, with deft pacing and effective cliff-hangers. Action pushes the plot resolutely forward -- whether Juniper is getting knocked out in the middle of the night or finding her bed chillingly made by someone other than herself. And Juniper herself is a likeable character with a distinct voice -- you’re happy to spend a few long, exhausting days with her trekking through L.A., following one clue after the other. (Although I did want to shake her into putting on a decent pair of shoes as she runs around facing danger in flip-flops.)

But in the end, the mystery and its eventual resolution are not wholly satisfying. The unanswered questions and sinister undertones of Iris’ story are most engaging, and you can’t help but wish that the book shifted from the drama surrounding the innocently dull Lori to the more nuanced character of Iris. Steered by a smart and compelling character like Juniper, we readily anticipate a future serial with a detective that Marlowe himself would begrudgingly respect.

When she’s not road-raging her way through her native Los Angeles, Maurene Goo spends her days writing young adult novels. www.maurenegoo.com


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