One thing I've said (possibly too often) as I talk about this series is how much I enjoy the conversations between Lydia and Bill -- but I think one of the conversations between Lydia and her mother tops anything the partners have to say (until the last conversation, anyway), and the rest weren't far behind. We start off with Mrs. Chin telling Lydia that she has to go to Mississippi -- and take Bill along -- to investigate a murder. Long-time readers of this series will be forgiven the need to re-read that sentence, I assure you that it's correct. One of Lydia's cousins (yes, she has cousins in the Mississippi Delta -- she's as shocked as you are) is accused of murdering his father. Her mother wants Lydia to go down and prove his innocence. That he's innocent isn't ever in doubt for a moment -- he's related to Lydia's father, ergo, he's innocent. Lydia doesn't accept her mother's logic, but feels obligated to try to help this cousin she's never heard of before now, so she and Bill set off for the Delta. It's simply a dynamite first chapter, and the hook was set immediately.
Upon their arrival, Lydia and Bill find themselves neck deep in a tangled web of history, race, meth, gambling (both your more traditional varieties and purely 21st Century versions), politics and a even more race (it is Mississippi). Lydia's cousin Jefferson is in his mid-20's, a computer whiz of some sort with questionable ethics. He's called to come to his father's grocery store for some reason -- they argue, and Jefferson leaves to cool off. When he returns, he finds his father bleeding out from a knife wound. Naturally, that's when the police arrive, taking him into custody immediately. He's bloody, standing over the victim and weapon -- and sure, his fingerprints are all over the knife. Seems like an open and shut case, right?
Jefferson's uncle, Captain Pete, is at the front of the line of those who doubt this -- which is why he called his cousin's widow to get her PI daughter down to help. Pete's a professional gambler -- precisely the kind of person Mrs. Chin wouldn't like to acknowledge, but is friendly, hospitable and charming. Lydia and Bill warm to him quickly and he becomes a source of comfort as well as a source of information for the duo as they dive in to the investigation. Soon after arriving in Mississippi, they also meet another of Lydia's cousins -- a nephew to Pete, who is running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Lydia can't believe she's related to a candidate for governor and she's never heard of him. What else has her mother been keeping from her? Just from her conversations with Pete and Raymond Tam (the candidate), Lydia's overwhelmed with family history that she didn't expect to exist, much less be able to understand it all. It doesn't derail the work that she and Bill are doing at all, but it threatens to distract her more than once. Adding the candidate into the mix guarantees that the water will get a lot muddier before it starts to become clear.
Lydia's voice is as strong, engaging and entertaining as ever -- possibly better than ever. I want to compare it to vintage Spenser, but that seems wrong (I'm not sure why I want to compare it to Parker at his best or why I shouldn't -- but that's where I am). She's funny, she's smart, she's insightful, she's in a very alien place and is doing her best to acclimate. Bill seemed under utilized a little bit this time around -- but (as he himself would point out), this was Lydia's family, her case -- he was just around for support. And he did come to her aid at pivotal moments -- laying his native Southern accent on a little thick to help pave the way with some of the locals and to diffuse tense situations. Captain Pete is a great character, and I wish he wasn't designed to be a one-and-done kind of guy, but I can't see him coming up to Chinatown anytime soon to have tea with Mrs. Chin. Actually, I could easily read another novel or two with this cast -- from the Public Defender staff to the people that hang out at the grocery store and all points in between. I'm not sure how Rozan could orchestrate those novels without feeling a bit contrived, but I'd be in for them.(*)
(*) Sure, I'd be in for Lydia and Bill Go Grocery Shopping or Bill and Lydia's Day at the Recycling Center, but that's beside the point..
I enjoy tea, but I'm no expert on it -- I'm no where near the tea aficionado that Lydia is (even keeping Bill's cupboards better stocked than he understands), but I loved her reaction to Sweet Tea (not just because I think she's right). Using food is a great shortcut to revealing character traits, and Rozan does a great job throughout this book, but particularly on this point, of using that peculiar Southern version of tea to show us sides of Lydia.
Rozan's at her strongest when in addition to the mystery, she's using the circumstances around it to have Lydia and/or Bill explore another culture/sub-culture. She's displayed this strength when helping her readers understand the Jewish refugees in the 1930's who fled to Shanghai (The Shanghai Moon), Hong Kong (in Reflecting the Sky), Small Town High School Football (Winter and Night), the Contemporary Chinese Art scene (Ghost Hero), and so on. Here we get a Yankee perspective on Mississippi black/white relations (and a glance or two at how it differs from neighboring states), as well as a fascinating look at the Chinese in the Mississippi Delta in the late Nineteenth Century (which left me almost as shocked as Lydia). You give us that kind of history and commentary while delivering a solid mystery? It's hard to ask for more.
As interesting as that is, the heart of the novel is in the idea of family. It's a strong theme throughout the series, actually --- whether it be Lydia's strong sense of family, or the found family in the partnership of Bill and Lydia -- or the many damaged families they encounter in their work. In Paper Son family shapes the warp and woof of the narrative -- it's Mrs. Chin's confidence in the innocence of her husband's relations, and Captain Pete's call for help that brings the duo to the Delta. Lydia fights the impulse to believe Jefferson and Pete (and others) just because they're family, yet wants thing to be the way her mother believes they are (even when -- particularly when -- the facts don't seem to support it). Bill even encounters a fellow Smith, and while no one believes for a second they share anything beyond the name in common, there's a connection. At it's core, Paper Son is a story about the sacrifice, support, trust, and dysfunction that comes along from strong family (blood relation or found family) -- not to mention all of the unintended consequences of that sacrifice, support, trust and dysfunction. I'm tempted to keep going, but I'd end up revealing too much.
The mystery itself is up to Rozan's high standards -- you may guess the identity of the killer fairly early on (and you may not), but you will not see the motivation coming until it's past the point of inevitability. The ending feels a little rushed, but I can't think of a way to improve upon it -- and any rush was actually probably just me trying to discover how things would play out. The first half of the denouement with Lydia's family is heartwarming -- and, sure, borderline cheesy, but Rozan earned it. The second half is less cheesy and will fill even jaded readers with hope and joy. It's just a great way to close the book.
If Paper Son isn't S. J. Rozan and the series at their best, it's hard to tell. For book 12 in a series to be this good almost defies the odds, the years that separated this book from it's predecessor didn't slow her down a bit (I honestly was afraid we'd be looking at something like Lehane's return to Kenzie and Genarro in Moonlight Mile after 11 years). Long-time fans will be delighted in the return of this pair. I don't know that this is the best introduction to the series, but it'd work just fine -- you learn everything you need to know here. Fans of PI fiction starring smart, capable (and yes, mouthy) women will find a lot to reward them in these pages.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from W. W. Norton & Company via NetGalley in exchange for this post -- thanks to both for this.