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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Incensed by Ed Lin

Soho Crime, 336 pages, $26.95

“Incensed” isn’t a typical mystery. Don’t start the book by holding your breath until the dead body drops. Although it is the next book, after “Ghost Month,” in the Chen Jing-Nan series set in Taiwan, it is more a continuation of the exploration of Jing-Nan’s life and the culture of Taiwan than “the next mystery.”

Read my review of “Ghost Month” first, as it sets out a summary of Ed Lin’s setting and main characters.

Jing-Nan runs his family’s food stand in the famous Shilin Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan. Known for its use of unusual parts of animals (and not just in sausages), the stand also has some notoriety as the place where Jing-Nan almost bit the dust. He was saved from death by bullet by a handy pot, the dinged remains of which are proudly displayed. Twenty-five-year-old Jing-Nan uses the colloquial English he picked up while attending college in the U.S. to lure groups of English-speaking tourists to the stand. Despite living across the street from a park that is home to a noisy, feral band of dogs and having no clue about the recipes used to make the signature dishes at his food stand and not being exactly where he had envisioned himself at this stage of his life, Jing-Nan is doing well.

Enter Uncle Big Eye and his sixteen-year-old daughter, Mei-ling. Uncle Big Eye is a mob boss in another, less populated part of Taiwan. Mei-ling is a brat who has big singing aspirations. Big Eye cannot manage his daughter, so she is shipped off to Taipei to the care of cousin Jing-Nan. What does Jing-Nan know about sixteen-year-old girls? Even with the help of his punk girlfriend, Nancy, he is lost at sea. And eventually, he loses Mei-ling. However, quite a lot of book passes by before she disappears.

Ed Lin has the knack of being able to immerse his readers in a different culture, with different religions, food, rules, and humor. For most of the book, that is the mystery that Lin unravels: the culture of Taiwan. Different elements of society are represented by his colorful characters. Old school mate Peggy is a trader in the cutthroat financial world. Nancy has aligned with student protestors, angry over several issues, including gay rights. Mei-ling is using inappropriate means to advance her “career.” Mei-ling’s boyfriend is Indonesian — derogatorily termed a “darkie” by her father and others — and determined to get Mei-ling back. Frankie and Dwayne, workers at Jing-Nan’s food stand, have mysterious backgrounds, useful physical skills, and criminal connections. Put them all together and you don’t quite have a traditional mystery, but you do have an interesting look at what makes Taiwan tick.

Lin uses a little story to tell the bigger story about a world of mixed influences. Eventually there is a dead body or two, but it’s almost incidental. Lin has a good sense of humor, which is evident in one of his first scenes: a stinky tofu eating contest. All this makes “Incensed” an fast-paced, funny, and revealing read.

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