Robert Chow is not a happy man. When he joined the New York Police Department and was assigned to Chinatown, he thought he would be making a real different for his community. After all, he spoke Cantonese. He grew up there. But as the only officer of Chinese descent in the NYPD, Chow is nothing more than a PR tool. He walks a beat most of the time, except when he is called in to be a Chinese face at some public event. This is a Bust, by Ed Lin, tells Chow’s story as he races for rock bottom in the summer of 1976.
Because Chow is not a detective (though he desperately wants to be), he is stuck walking a beat through Chinatown. Every morning, he fuels up with iced coffee and two or three hot-dog pastries and walks. Some of the inhabitants of Chinatown see him as an outsider because he is a cop. Others, usually older residents, see him as the only policeman they can trust. They tell him things, which annoys and saddens Chow because he’s technically not supposed to do anything with these tips apart from passing them on to the detectives.
The enforced uselessness of his position—and Chow know full well the NYPD is exploiting him for his face—is getting to Chow. He drinks more and more each day. He drinks in the morning. He drinks at night until he passes out watching news from Taiwan and mainland China. He drinks to forget his experiences in Vietnam. He drinks to forget his dreams of making a difference. In spite of all this drinking and Chow’s increasingly bad attitude, people love him and try to help him rescue himself from alcoholism.
The mystery in This is a Bust, involving a trio of older Chinese residents, is a footnote to Chow’s alcoholism. Chow responds when Yip bursts into the barbershop to announce that his wife is dead and he doesn’t know what to do. Chow leaves mid-haircut to take a look and call it in. For the rest of the book, Yip sidles up to Chow for help and to try and make friends with the officer. Evidence and clues about what really happens slowly trickle in. In any other novel about a hardbitten alcoholic cop, the protagonist would have been all over this case. Chow, however, is so angry and disaffected most of the time that he stays warned when his superiors tell him to let the detectives handle the case. It’s almost a surprise when Chow later cracks the case.
This is a Bust reads, to me, like a prologue to explain why Chow is the way he is. In other circumstances, we might have come to know Chow through other mysteries and liked him for his dedication to Chinatown or something similar. Instead, we watch him race towards rock bottom while a case is lackadaisically pursued by others. What I liked most about this book was the setting. Whatever his value as a cop might be, Chow is an excellent guide to the tangle of histories and relationships in New York’s Chinatown during the mid-1970s.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 25 July 2017.