The Foreigner

By FRANCIE LIN

Crime fiction that tells us about life in mainland China have become so common (such authors as Lisa See and Qiu Xiaolong are among the leading practitioners) that it comes as a surprise to realize how little we know about what goes on in the darker streets of Taiwan. Fortunately for us, Francie Lin — a Harvard graduate and a former editor of The Threepenny Review — spent two years in Taiwan on a Fulbright Fellowship, which doubtlessly planted in her mind the idea for her absolutely riveting debut thriller. It’s about a 40-year-old bachelor called Emerson Chang, a San Francisco financial analyst who doesn’t speak a word of Chinese. He has spent his life looking after, and being browbeaten by, his Formosa-born mother, a tough cookie who runs a cheap motel she has renamed the Remeda Inn to suck in the chain’s runoff. Mrs. Chang wears her nationality like overdone makeup, saying that her only wish is to have her ashes scattered on her native ground. When she dies, Emerson — after being somewhat shaken by the news of her large bequest to his younger brother, Little P, who deserted the family and is now deeply involved in the Taiwanese criminal underworld — sets off for Taiwan, where Little P seems to be running some very shady business out of his uncle’s karaoke bar. Lin catches the flavor of the Taiwanese world — especially its underworld — with great skill. But she is best at combining her action scenes with touching moments of memory, as Emerson realizes how much his mother lost by coming to America. In a Taiwan hotel lobby, waiting for Little P to show up, Emerson listens to “the nasal strains of an old Shanghainese pop song…. My mother had liked these pop songs from the mainland herself, the old, plaintive ghost of Shanghai glamour.”