“Paper Son,” by S. J. Rozan, Pegasus Books, 2019, 352 pages, $25.95
In 1994, S. J. Rozan started a series of mysteries focused on Lydia Chen and Bill Smith. Chin was Chinese, first generation, while Smith was a white Southerner. Both lived in New York City, working together despite Smith’s unrequited love for Chin.
“Paper Son,” by Rozan marks a new addition to the series, the first since 2011.
Chin’s mother sends Chin to Mississippi to clear a cousin accused of murdering his father. Jefferson Tam is descended from Lydia’s father’s grandfather’s brother. That, according to Chin’s mother makes Jefferson incapable of murder. Jefferson is family, and that means he cannot be a killer.
Lydia is more doubtful. Jefferson was found over his father’s body, holding the murder weapon. The bloody knife was normally used to cut meat for sandwiches in the store the father ran and was killed in. Even more surprising to Chin, Chin’s mother tells her to go with the White Baboon (her mother’s inevitable name for Bill Smith).
Smith agrees (despite no pay for both). The two are off to the Mississippi Delta.
Tam’s last name differ from Chin’s because Chin’s ancestor entered the United States from China as a “paper son” early in the 20th century. Immigration laws then prevented Chinese immigration except for relatives, so this Chin became a Tam, pretending to be the son of a Chinese shopkeeper in Mississippi.
The Chinese filled a niche in the 1880s through the 1930s Mississippi society. Whites who would not sell to blacks would sell to Chinese. The Chinese started grocery stores selling to blacks. The Chinese were never fully accepted, but precariously serving as the interface between white and black. Things became complicated by the 1927 flood. It destroyed records, allowing light-skinned blacks and Chinese to reinvent themselves as other races.
The mystery of who killed Jefferson’s father proves tangled in these now-ancient racial rules, tangled with modern meth dealing and racial prejudices, plus a Democrat gubernatorial primary involving another previously-unknown relative of Chin’s. “Paper Son” proves an exquisitely sensitive examination of the meaning of race, love, family and prejudice.
Rozan has produced another entertaining and thought-provoking story.