Ghost Hero (Lydia Chin and Bill Smith Series #11)

Ghost Hero (Lydia Chin and Bill Smith Series #11)

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by S. J. Rozan

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After a dry spell and verging on desperate for work, Chinese- American P.I. Lydia Chin agrees to take a case different from her usual fare. A man calling himself Jeff Dunbar hires her to track down a rumor about a very unusual Chinese painter. Contemporary Chinese painting is blazing hot in the art world and no one is hotter than Chau Chun – Ghost Hero Chau.


After a dry spell and verging on desperate for work, Chinese- American P.I. Lydia Chin agrees to take a case different from her usual fare. A man calling himself Jeff Dunbar hires her to track down a rumor about a very unusual Chinese painter. Contemporary Chinese painting is blazing hot in the art world and no one is hotter than Chau Chun – Ghost Hero Chau. A brilliant and widely-recognized artist, known for mixing classical forms and contemporary political comment, his works are highly prized. The rumor of new paintings by Chau is racing through the Manhattan art world. There's only one problem – Ghost Hero Chau has been dead for twenty years.

Something is clearly amiss. Not only is the Ghost Hero dead, but Lydia's client isn't who he claims to be. And she's not the only PI looking into the case—Bill Smith and Lydia discover that Jack Lee, also Chinese-American, a PI and an art expert as well —has been hired to chase down the same rumors. What starts as buzz over new paintings by a dead artist quickly becomes something far more complex and dangerous, involving secrets that more than one person seems willing to go to extremes to protect.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“S.J. Rozan is a good old-fashioned mystery writer, and I mean that as a high compliment.” —Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post

“...excellent ... Engaging characters, crisp dialogue, intelligent storytelling, and a minimum of violence add up to another winner for Rozan.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

“Rozan picks up the pace and adds a new plot twist to pull off another coup.” —Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times

“Rozan delivers another thoroughly entertaining, meticulously plotted and utterly riveting installment of her Lydia Chin/Bill Smith series.... rival PI Jack Lee is a delightful addition.” —RT Book Reviews (Top Pick!)

“...more cons and double-crosses than The Sting.” —Kirkus Reviews

Maureen Corrigan
S.J. Rozan is a good old-fashioned mystery writer, and I mean that as a high compliment…Ghost Hero is haunted by the tragedies and courageous legacy of China's failed democracy movement. As Lydia and Bill get caught up in the swirl of rumors about Chau's paintings, Rozan raises philosophical issues about the power of art to agitate and inspire, and about the morality of secluding that art on the walls of wealthy collectors.
—The Washington Post
Marilyn Stasio
Every S. J. Rozan mystery featuring sleuthing partners Lydia Chin and Bill Smith comes with a bonus feature that makes New York feel vital and fabulous. In Ghost Hero, it's an inside look at the city's art scene, from imposing uptown galleries and trendy storefront spaces in Chelsea to starving-artists' warehouse collectives in Queens.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
At the start of Edgar-winner Rozan's excellent 11th novel featuring PI partners Lydia Chin and Bill Smith (after On the Line), Jeff Dunbar, a collector of contemporary Chinese art, hires Lydia to get to the bottom of beguiling rumors that new works by the late Chau Chun (aka Ghost Hero Chau) have somehow surfaced. Chau, who died 20 years earlier during the Tiananmen Square uprising, used traditional symbols and techniques to conceal subversive political messages in brush-and-ink scrolls. The likeliest explanation for the scuttlebutt is that someone has been forging his work. Bill hooks Lydia up with a friend and colleague, Jack Lee, who reveals that he's gotten the identical assignment from a different client, NYU professor Bernard Yang. With doubts growing as to Dunbar's real agenda, Lydia and Bill start fishing to find out what's really going on. Engaging characters, crisp dialogue, intelligent storytelling, and a minimum of violence add up to another winner for Rozan. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Is Lydia and Bill (On the Line) are drawn into the contemporary art world in their 11th outing. What can they make of new paintings from an artist who was killed in Tiananmen Square?
Kirkus Reviews

Now that she's been rescued from her kidnappers (On the Line, 2010, etc.), ChinatownPI Lydia Chin deserves a bit of a holiday: a madcap search for some paintings that may or may not be authentic, and may or may not actually exist.

Jeff Dunbar is clear about what he wants: to locate the most recent paintings by Chau Chun, the Ghost Hero late of the Beijing Art Institute. But he's not clear about anything else. He doesn't give Lydia his real name. He doesn't tell her why he needs to hire a private eye, and one with no expertise tracking down artworks, to find the paintings instead of waiting for them to come on the market. He can't explain why Chau would have any new work available when he was killed in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago. He doesn't warn Lydia that he's not the only person looking for the paintings. So she and her partner Bill Smith are dumbfounded when Jack Lee, the specialist friend of Bill's they consult, tells them that he's working the same case too. Once Jack reveals the identity of his client—Bernard Yang, the NYU professor who held the Ghost Hero's hand as he died—the game is afoot, and what a game it is, with no bloodletting and not much suspense but more cons and double-crosses thanThe Sting.Before the case is finally laid to rest, Bill will disguise himself as wealthy, mobbed-up art patron Vladimir Oblomov and Jack as art authenticator Dr. Lin Qiao-xiang to fool greedy gallery owner Doug Haig, with new revelations of other players' deceptions arriving every ten minutes.

Pleasantly foolish, insubstantial and harmless, though Bill's extended turn as Oblomov is a little hard to take. Are the lowlife creeps who chase high art really that gullible?

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Lydia Chin and Bill Smith Series, #11
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.56(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt




In a relentlessly chic and tranquil tea shop on the Lower East Side, I sat sipping gunpowder green and trying to figure out what my new client was up to. That the client, Jeff Dunbar, sat across the table laying out the case he was hiring me for, helped not at all.

“It’s about art,” he’d begun, stirring sugar into his straight-ahead American coffee after the pleased-to-meet-yous were over.

“Art?” I’d tried to sound intrigued, as opposed to baffled, by this revelation. Dunbar had called the day before, saying he needed an investigator and had seen my Web site. I’d expected, when we met on this chilly, bright spring morning, to hear a problem that was personal—cheating fiancée, two-timing wife—or professional—industrial espionage, embezzling employees. Straying spouses and shady secretaries are my daily bread and the Web site says so. It doesn’t mention art, a specialty outside any of my areas of expertise. If this case was about art, I had to wonder, why call me?

Dunbar sent a dollop of milk to join the sugar. “I’m a collector. Contemporary Chinese art. Do you know much about that?”

Oh. This had to do with my contemporary Chineseness? “Not much, no.”

He nodded and settled back. “It’s a cutting-edge collecting area. Not really inside the PRC, even among the new rich, but in the West. Chinese painters, especially, but also sculptors, photographers, installation artists—they’re all hot.” His voice was pleasant, measured, as though lecturing at a symposium on the globalized cultural marketplace. He looked the part, too: thirtyish, short dark hair, polished shoes, the only business suit in sight. That his art and his prospective detective were both Chinese couldn’t be coincidence, but the detective’s ignorance seemed okay with him. My antennae went up. There’s a class of Westerners who “like rice”: They’re attracted to Asians, or, really, to their own exotic fantasies. If Jeff Dunbar had chosen Chinese art, and me, for that reason, he was about to get a fast good-bye. And stuck with the check.

But he didn’t look it, and he wasn’t acting it. Those guys invariably wear something Asian, at least a tie with a double-happiness pattern. They order tea. And, during Zen-like pauses, they gaze soulfully into my slanty eyes. Jeff Dunbar came across as a guy in a boring suit conducting a business meeting.

I decided to see where this was going. “Tell me about this art. I don’t think I’ve seen much of it.” I ransacked my brain, came up with little besides misty mountains and pine trees from five or six dynasties back. “Is it like classical art? Ink on paper, that kind of thing?”

“Interesting you should ask that. Mostly, no. A lot of artists now work in Western media—oils, acrylics. But the paintings I’m concerned with happen to be inks.” He set his cup down. “There’s a painter named Chau Chun. Referred to as Chau ‘Gwai Ying Shung’—Ghost Hero Chau. Have you heard of him?”

“I’m sorry, no.” I added, “Your pronunciation is very good. Do you speak Chinese?”

“Thanks. Yes, I minored in it in college. It occurred to me that people who spoke the language would be increasingly in demand.”

“And you majored in?…”

“Art, of course.”

Of course, except for the half-second pause before he said it. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. You were telling me about Ghost Hero Chau.”

“Yes. Well, Chau was a young professor at the Beijing Art Institute in the 1980s. His work from that period is very valuable.”

“How valuable is ‘very’? ”

“A piece will sell for around half a million. A little more, a little less, depending.”

Yes, I thought, that would be “very.”

“A lot of artists his age were doing experimental work in those days,” Dunbar went on, “but Chau always worked in traditional media with traditional techniques. He made brush-and-ink scrolls: mountains, plum blossoms, lotus ponds. Classical-looking, and also traditional in another sense: They were political, but in arcane ways. Hidden symbols and metaphors, that sort of thing.”

“That’s traditional? I didn’t know that.”

“Nature painting with coded commentary goes back to the Yuan Dynasty. About eight hundred years,” he added, in case I didn’t know my dynasties. “The commentary’s aimed at educated people of the painter’s political persuasion, but the coding gives the painter deniability. But don’t worry, Ms. Chin. I didn’t expect you to have any expertise in this field. That’s not why I called.”

“I have to admit that’s a relief. So tell me, what can I do for you?”

“Recently, some new paintings of Ghost Hero Chau’s seem to have surfaced. Again, inks, and again, political, criticizing the government, the Party, the economic free-for-all going on in China and the social disasters it’s causing.”

“I’m surprised that’s allowed. Criticizing the government can get you in trouble over there.”

“Very much so, if you’re an activist lawyer, say. Or a writer. Artists, less often.”

“What makes them special?”

“Oh, it could be liberalization. Those hundred flowers finally blooming. Or,” he smiled, “maybe it’s that the artists are cash cows. The West loves political work. Collectors pay a fortune and the government takes a cut.”

“It does?”

“Well, so does ours, from our artists. We call it taxes. They call it something else but the result’s the same. Also, there’s national pride. Sky-high prices make China a player in the art world.”

“But if the paintings are critical?”

“Ah, but with visual works, you can always say seeing something as antigovernment misses the point. That it was meant as ironic, tongue-in-cheek.”

“Deniability, like in the Yuan Dynasty.”


“And that’s what the artists say? To keep the government off their backs?”

“It’s what the government says, to explain why someone’s allowed to say in paint what a writer gets years of hard labor for saying in words. Of course, writers’ manifestos aren’t going for half a million U.S. dollars. The artists who get in trouble are the ones who don’t keep their mouths shut. The ones who let their work do the talking are pretty safe.”

“I see. So people like this Ghost Hero Chau are insulated by money. I guess I’m not surprised.”

But Dunbar shook his head. “Chau’s a special case. For one thing, if what I hear is true, the new paintings are here, in New York.”

“If what you hear is true? You mean you haven’t seen them?” I was getting a glimmer of what this was about.

“That’s right. I haven’t, and no one seems to know where they are. I’m hoping you can find them.”

“Because I’m Chinese?”

“That sounds like racial profiling, doesn’t it?” He smiled again. “I suppose it is. It occurred to me, if I wasn’t having any luck tracking the paintings through art channels, there might be another way. I did an online search for a Chinese investigator.”

I might have taken offense, but after all, that’s why my Chinese clients come to me, too. “Tell me something, Mr. Dunbar. If no one’s seen these paintings, what makes you think they exist?”

“Rumors. The collecting community’s always full of rumors. Backhanded, of course, because everyone’s trying to beat everyone to the prize.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Oh, someone sidles up to you at an opening and asks if you’ve heard this nonsense about the new Chaus, the Ghost Hero’s ghost paintings that don’t exist. They’re hoping you’ll say, Yes, they do, I saw them. If you do, they’ll ask where, as if you must be crazy, and when you tell them, they’ll laugh and say you’ve lost your touch, someone’s passing off fakes and you fell for it. Ghost Hero Chau, for God’s sake. Then it’s, Oh, look at the time, I’ve got to go, and before they’re out the door they’re speed-dialing whoever you said had the Chaus.”

“And that’s been going on?”

“Variations of it. For about a week now. But I’ve spoken to the galleries and private dealers—I’m sure everyone else has, too—and I’ve gotten nowhere. Only one gallery assistant even admitted to knowing what I was talking about, and then he backpedaled. I think he realized he was in over his head. The Chinese contemporary world’s pretty small and his boss must be as eager as anyone to find these paintings. If I end up with them because this kid put me on the inside track, and his boss finds out, he’s up a creek. Plus, I just started collecting. He might be willing to go out on a limb for one of the big collectors, but he doesn’t know me from a hole in the ground.”

A creek, a limb, and a hole in the ground. Maybe these were nature metaphors with hidden political meaning.

“So what do you think, Ms. Chin? Can you find them?”

“Mr. Dunbar, you’re not even sure these paintings exist. Why not wait until they either surface, or it all turns out to be smoke? I guess what I’m asking is, Why is paying for an investigation worth it?” It’s not that I wanted to talk myself out of work, but something wasn’t adding up here.

Jeff Dunbar regarded me. “Do you collect anything, Ms. Chin? Stamps, coins, Barbie dolls?” He added, “Guns?” Racial profiling, but carefully politically correct about gender.


He leaned forward. “For a collector, the hunt’s as much of a thrill as the find. I want these Chaus, if they’re real. But I also want to be the one who finds them, and finds out if they’re real. Especially since I’m the new kid on the block. Does that make sense?”

“I guess so,” I said, though the collector’s passion, to me, is like gravity: I admit it has a pull but I don’t understand it.

“Also,” he said, “there’s a time issue.”

Ah. Time is money. And money does talk.

“Asian Art Week starts Sunday. All over town: The auction houses, the museums and galleries, two big Armory shows, and a show the Chinese government’s sending over called Beijing/NYC. Mostly classical art and antiquities, but a lot of contemporary, too. The big collectors, the critics, the curators all come. From everywhere—Asia and Europe, as well as here. If these Chaus exist, whoever has them might be planning to unveil them then.”

“To make a splash.”

“That’s right.”

“And you want them so you can make the splash.”

“I told you the collecting world’s small? It’s also closed and clannish. Some things I’m interested in I never get a shot at, because when they show up, I’m not the one who gets the call. I want that to change. If I had the new Chaus, trust me, that would change.”

“All right. But there’s something else. I don’t know much about this, but wouldn’t an artist, or a dealer or somebody, whoever has these paintings, either just put them on the market, or not? I mean, one or the other. Rumors, mystery, paintings no one’s seen that may or not be real—is this how the art world works?”

“Normally, no. But as I said, Ghost Hero Chau is a special case. The possibility of new paintings by him would be bound to stir up all kinds of mystery and rumors.”

“And why is that?”

Dunbar sat back. “Are you familiar with the uprising at Tiananmen Square in 1989?”

I thought for a moment. “A democracy movement that never got off the ground, crushed by the Party. That’s about all I know.”

“Correct. They sent the army in against the protestors. Hundreds of people were killed. Including Ghost Hero Chau. Ms. Chin, he’s been dead for twenty years.”


Copyright © 2011 by S. J. Rozan

Meet the Author

S.J. ROZAN is author of many critically acclaimed novels which have won most of crime fiction's greatest honors, including the Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, Macavity, and Nero awards. Born and raised in the Bronx, Rozan now lives in lower Manhattan.

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Ghost Hero 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
LaylaCD More than 1 year ago
There is much too much banter in this novel and not nearly enough movement....frankly, I gave up 2/3 of the way thru and archived this on my NOOK. I've read Rozan before & loved the work, but this was a hughe disappointment.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
A ghost as hero? Well, why not? So much fiction requires us to suspend belief, in Ghost Hero author S.J. Rozan makes it a pleasure. The story is mostly told in conversation between very likable characters. To tell a story in that manner is hard to pull off without making the conversations stilted. But here they are pleasantly breezy, but so well-crafted that I was impressed the more I read. When all was done, I felt eager to read other stories in the series, which was all new to me. Author Rozan took some big chances with her invented characters such as Vladimir and Dr. Lin, but they worked well and with great humor. And the um, real characters did too. I particularly liked Jack and Eddie To.
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MarjorieofConnecticut More than 1 year ago
There are few authors that can keep a series fresh and entertaining in the way that S.J. Rozan has with her Lydia Chin/Bill Smith PI books. In her 11th, GHOST HERO, she brings her two private investigators into the world of art (Chinese and Chinese-American) in the galleries of New York City where they cross paths with another PI. I won't say any more because I know that part of the joy of reading a book is discovering what comes next. I will say that Rozan's humor, her intricate plots (that feel like a literary peeling away of the layers on an onion), her keen observations about human nature and her street smarts make this another wonderful addition to the series. I prefer to read most series in the order that they were written, but if you haven't read any of this series before (and why haven't you?), this would be an excellent place to start. But I think that you'll then go back to CHINA TRADE (the 1st in the series) and start all over again. Enjoy!
harstan More than 1 year ago
Modern day Chinese art collector Jeff Dunbar hears rumors of the discovery of previously unknown works by the late "Ghost Hero" Chau Chun, who died during the Tiananmen Square uprising. A legend among freedom lovers, the Ghost Hero concealed anti-government messages in his drawings. Although Jeff assumes that if the paintings exist they are forgeries as they contain contemporary political messages or the Ghost lives, he hires Chinese-American private investigator Lydia Chin to look into the existence and authenticity of the claims. Lydia's partner Bill Smith introduces her to a sleuthing colleague Jack Lee, also a native Chinese-American. Jack explains that NYU professor Bernard Yang has hired him to investigate the Chau Chun claims. As the detectives compare notes, Lydia and Bill wonder what their client really wants. This is a super twisting Chin and Smith investigative thriller (see On the Line) that grips readers from the moment Dunbar hires Chin and never slows down until the final denouement. The key cast is fully developed in this fast-paced yet cerebral mystery. Like Chin, Smith and Lee, readers will want to know who is painting the current Ghost Hero masterpieces. Harriet Klausner