Year of the Dog

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 December, 2008, 12:00am

Year of the Dog

by Henry Chang

Soho Crime, HK$192

Jack Yu is not your average officer. He might be a New York Police Department detective, but he is Chinese and that sets him apart ... as does a Chinatown past that has a nasty habit of revisiting him when he least needs it.

He may have been transferred from Chinatown to Manhattan South, but Yu can't escape his ethnic roots. Not the least of his problems is that his childhood friend Lucky Louie is a gang boss who sees Jack as a source of information to help him in a tough turf war. A shoot-out has the NYPD on edge and Jack finds himself caught between peers who know little about the Chinese gangs and his one-time comrades who expect his blood ties to mean more than his badge.

The detective is only days into his new job when he is called to a murder/suicide, involving a well-to-do Chinese family of four found asphyxiated by charcoal fumes. Jack suspects the deaths may have resulted from their need to save face, but what threatened a family who seemed to be doing well?

There is nothing simple about the gang connections that haunt the streets of Manhattan as much as they do Chinatown. Hong Kong triads are linked with local gangsters masterminding a credit-card fraud that has dire consequences for all involved and Jack needs all the resolve he can muster to stand firm in the face of his fellow Chinese.

The characters in Year of the Dog are full-blooded, real and chilling. From gang lord Lucky and young turk Koo Jai to the dying bookie Sai Go, the criminal rationality is scary. Even the bit players live in a world where a criminal modus operandi is the rule rather than the exception. Take Angelina Chao, for example, 'a one-time Hong Kong hostess' who runs a whorehouse out of a stylish Manhattan condo. Or take Chu Bo Jan, spirited to the US by smugglers and struggling to pay for her new life as a hairstylist. She refuses to be intimidated into prostitution, but she can't escape.

If characterisation gives this book a compelling dark depth, it is the geopolitical criminal landscape that gives it breadth.

We learn, for example, how the gangs' global affiliations set them both apart and at each other's throats. The newcomers, from Fujian, are out to gain control, looking to oust rival gangs and dislodge the earlier wave of Cantonese-speaking immigrants from Guangzhou.

It is against this complex tribal backdrop that Jack Yu must enforce justice. It is not an easy task and this is no ordinary crime thriller.