Ed Ifkovic writing as Andrew Lanh launches a new mystery series with the November release of Caught Dead, and the introduction of private investigator Rick Van Lam. Lam is an ex-New York policeman relocated to Hartford, Connecticut where he has become a partner in a detective agency working primarily on insurance investigation. Lam is Amerasian, child of a Vietnamese mother and an unknown American soldier, who was given asylum in America as an orphan. Despite Vietnamese prejudice against mixed race children, the tainted boi doi, he has managed to make some good friends in Hartford’s Vietnamese community. His heritage and the community in which he works are the hooks that set this prospective series apart from the run-of-the-mill detective story.
The mysterious death of Mary Le, one of a set of beautiful twins gunned down on one of the most dangerous corners in the city, a place she wouldn’t have been caught dead, is not the kind of case Lam would normally handle. But since local police are inclined to write it off as an accidental mistake, friendly family members ask him to look into the killing. He insists this is not the kind of thing he works on; nonetheless, he lets himself get talked into it. While the hunt for the truth is not exactly page turning fare, it is presented in satisfactory workmanlike fashion.
In some respects the most compelling things in the novel are in the evocation of Vietnamese culture and customs. Vietnamese distaste for the boi doi, the “dust boys,” even in the immigrant community is detailed. There is an interesting prologue describing a Vietnamese ritual for determining a baby’s future. The narrative is laced with Buddhist wisdom: “The killer and the one killed are the same. Parts of the whole. . . . Forevermore she and the killer are one.” In addition to pizza and burghers, Lam and his friends spend a lot of time eating Vietnamese food — nuoc man (savory fish sauce), tom ram man (salted shrimp), ga xao gung (ginger chicken) — and sipping Vietnamese drinks — nuoc mia (a sugar cane drink), tra da chanh (lemonade), cha fe sua (iced coffee). And this is only the first of the many excursions into Vietnamese cuisine. More importantly, much of the novel’s problem is a direct result of the differences in values between the older Vietnamese and their younger children raised in America.
Lanh introduces a number of supporting characters certain to be peopling the pages of future Lam adventures. First there’s Hank Nguyen, a young college student aiming for a police career who plays number one son to Rick’s Charlie Chan. There’s Hank’s wise Buddhism spouting grandmother. Rick’s ex-wife Liz is a psychologist who works with the police department, and the spark in their relationship doesn’t seem to have died. He has an irascible partner, and an engaging elderly landlady who seems to have graced the stage of the Radio City Music Hall in her younger days. There is even an ornery local cop who may not be as ornery as he first seems. Much of the book is devoted to elucidating the background and relationships between these certain to be continuing characters.
Caught Dead is an engaging beginning for this Rick Van Lam series. It promises good things to come.
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