The underlying stories are serious and grim, but the tone is deceptively light, even humorous, in Ed Lin's second book set in the 1970s. There's a lot of dialogue and you learn the voice of Chinese-American Robert Chow pretty well. Chow is a police detective-in-training in New York City, with an emphasis on being the Chinatown liaison.
We learn many things throughout the book about the Chinese community. There are distinct groups within this community: anti-Communist, pro-Communist, American-raised without an active opinion, Taiwanese, Shanghai, Fukienese, and on and on. Not all Chinese speak each other's language. There are illegal immigrants and then there are really illegal immigrants, shadow visitors who scuttle from "safe houses" to work and back to their hovels again, abused slave laborers without recourse.
Robert Chow, despite his very grim background as a Vietnam War vet and non-drinking alcoholic, is quietly funny, often as a way of warding off more serious questions or having to give more serious answers. Lin gives simple descriptions of the action that serve to emphasize the strong and complex emotions that lie beneath. Lin plays yin and yang very well.
Chow and his detective partner are assigned the task of finding the killers of two Asian men found under an overpass. Chow suspects they are illegals. In investigating the murders and searching for the elusive "Brother Five," who may be a criminal mastermind, he runs afoul of the various factions, any one of which could be the "snakehandler" running snakes – the Chinese indentured servants.
Along the way we meet Robert's girlfriend, his young ward, a childhood friend deeply disturbed by his war experience, and the wise and mysterious midget who runs the neighborhood toy store. We also hear bits and pieces about his Vietnam experience. Also, his dead father's life haunts him. After losing his money at gambling, Robert's father deserted his wife and child, leaving them to a life of poverty.
The mix of light and heavy, jokiness and anger, Chinese and Chinese-American cultures works well and provides an entertaining and thoughtful book.