Mystery / Saving the family jewels
An Austrian Jewish refugee in wartime Shanghai marries a well-to-do Chinese man. What happened to the gem that combined their families' most precious heirlooms?
The Shanghai Moon
by S.J. Rozan Minotaur Books, 373 pages, $24.95
When Lydia Chin is first approached about helping to recover jewelry that used to belong to an Austrian Jewish woman who survived World War II by taking refuge in Shanghai, she doesn't know anything about the brief Jewish sojourn in that city. But Chin, a Cantonese-speaking PI from Manhattan's Chinatown, learns quickly as she gets drawn into the dead woman's past, spurred on by the lethal violence that accompanies what initially appeared to be nothing more than a search for stolen property.
In "The Shanghai Moon," the ninth novel in her Lydia Chin and Bill Smith mystery series, Edgar Award-winner S.J. Rozan brings to life the intertwined societies and ideologies of Japanese-occupied Shanghai, one of the few places in the world where Jewish refugees from Europe were allowed entry. In the early 1940s, the Japanese confined the approximately 20,000 recently arrived Jews to what became known as the Shanghai ghetto, in the impoverished Hongkew district. Though squalid and uncomfortable, it was far less restrictive than the ghettos of Europe, and the Japanese refused to accede to their German ally's demand to hand over the Jews taking refuge there.
The need to get across a lot of information about an unfamiliar topic can sometimes lead to the kind of unnecessary exposition that weighs down a novel, but Rozan skirts that pitfall by making effective use of letters and diary entries. These convey a direct sense of life in wartime Shanghai, both for Jewish refugees like Rosalie Gilder, who is 18 when she flees Salzburg with her 14-year-old brother, Paul, and for native Chinese like Chen Kai-rong, from the well-off Chen family. After meeting on the boat to Shanghai in 1938, the two eventually marry and combine their families' most precious heirlooms to create what becomes a legendary gem known as the Shanghai Moon, a jade and diamond brooch that may have been one of the stolen jewels Chin is supposed to recover.
Chin, a second-generation American living in Chinatown with her mother - the Chinese version of the stereotypical guilt-inducing Jewish mother enamored of feeding her progeny, though she is fleshed out enough to get beyond the constraints of such typecasting - is brought on to the assignment by her Orthodox Jewish mentor, Joel Pilarsky, who affectionately calls her Chinsky. (As the book begins, it's been several months since she's heard from Smith, the detective who had been her partner.)
Chin and Pilarsky are searching for a cache of jewelry discovered in the course of a construction boom in modern-day Shanghai and for the Chinese official suspected of having stolen it and brought it to New York City. He is presumed to be planning to sell it either to a jewelry store on Chinatown's Canal Street or to one in the Jewish-dominated diamond district further uptown.
But for Chin, what begins as a search for missing jewelry turns into an intensely personal murder investigation that involves a police officer flown in from China, swaggering Chinatown gangs and an obsessive quest. In the process, the ghosts of Shanghai past are resurrected one by one as Rozan homes in on the emotional intricacies of familial betrayal and redemption - both in Chin's own family and in those with the most intimate connections to the Shanghai Moon. Even as the author keeps her eye on how to advance the plot to the next burglary or shooting, or to the latest discovery of a revealing tidbit of information, she does a good job of peopling the action with multifaceted characters (even the minor ones) who exhibit the fragility, and durability, of family relationships. As in real life, even when the characters have good intentions, their memories, feelings and actions are frequently muddied by flaws like bad decision-making, self-delusion and conflicts of interest - creating an expansive gray area that keeps from straying into over-sentimentalization.
This laudable lack of sappiness is also reflected in the relationship between the tea-sipping Chin and the coffee-guzzling Smith - whose good points, as Chin describes them, include hammering nails straight and lifting fingerprints, and who is on somewhat unsure footing when he finally gets back in contact with the partner he ditched. Rozan has a light touch with the banter between them and with Chin's internal monologue, even engaging in some gentle ribbing at the expense of the mystery genre.
In the course of just about "the cheesiest good cop/bad cop routine" the two PIs have ever done, Chin tells the guy they're trying to squeeze: "'You don't know what the deal was, but you don't not know anything? Does that mean something? I hope so. Because if it's just words, I have to tell you, Bill hates words.'
"Bill let Armpit go and reached for his Coke, which he downed probably so he wouldn't laugh out loud."
As Chin and Smith steadily peel away the lies that surround the sought-after gem around which the case is centered, "The Shanghai Moon" also lays bare the true family dynamics that underlie occasionally deceptive appearances. And since descriptions of World War II-era Shanghai, along with those of the present-day Chinatown setting, provide the intriguing backdrop to this enjoyable mystery, you just might learn something along the way.