AmericanBorn Chinese P.I. Lydia Chin is called in on what appears to be a simple case. Jeff Dunbar, art world insider, wants her to track down a rumor. Contemporary Chinese painting is sizzling hot on the art scene and no one is hotter than Chau Chun, known as the Ghost Hero. A talented and celebrated ink painter, Chau's highlyprized work mixes classical forms and modern political commentary. The rumor of new paintings by Chau is shaking up the art world. There's only one problem—Ghost Hero Chau has been dead for twenty years, killed in the 1989 Tianamen Square uprising. Not only is Ghost Hero Chau long dead, but Lydia's client isn't who he claims to be either. And she's not the only P.I. hired to look for these paintings. Lydia and her partner, Bill Smith, soon learn that someone else—Jack Lee: P.I., art expert, and, like Lydia, Americanborn Chinese—is also on the case. What starts as rumors over new paintings by a dead artist quickly becomes something far more desperate—a highstakes crisis the P.I.s will find themselves risking everything to resolve.
About 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.
Read an Excerpt
By S.J. Rozan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 S.J. Rozan
All rights reserved.
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."
"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."
"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."CHAPTER 2
Back in my office an hour later, I watched Bill Smith take an evaluative sip of coffee. He used to bring his own, but last week I'd bought a coffee press and a grinder and a pound of beans to store in the tiny freezer in my tiny fridge. Bill and I have had our ups and downs over the years; buying all this coffee-producing stuff was, for me, a big commitment.
"Excellent," he pronounced.
"What a relief. So ..." I leaned back in my creaky chair, cradling my jasmine tea, which was also excellent. "... what are we going to do about the late great Ghost Hero Chau and his new paintings?"
"Well, my first thought, you won't be surprised to hear, is that they're fakes." He sipped his coffee and gave a happy sigh.
"I suggested that to the client. He agreed they could be."
"If Chau's dead, and the paintings are new, they sort of have to be," Bill pointed out. "If they're real and they're new, Chau's unlikely to be dead. Unless he painted them twenty years ago and they're just turning up now, so they're not really new. Or he's dead and he just painted them, so he really is a ghost."
"Dunbar says no."
"No real ghost?"
"You sound disappointed."
"It would be something different."
"Sorry. No old paintings. Dunbar says the content refers to the problems of modern China. Internal migration, freedom of expression, corruption."
"The content," Bill said thoughtfully. "But it's coded, isn't it? He's sure he's reading it right?"
"Well, he's not reading it at all, because he hasn't seen them. Those are the rumors."
"Rumors. Which the whole collecting world's heard, but the dealers haven't."
"Dunbar thinks the dealers almost certainly have but won't admit it until one of them's got the paintings in his hot little hands."
"Okay, so tell me this: Why is Dunbar coming to an investigator instead of an art expert?"
"And an investigator with no clue about art. There, I just had to say it before you did. But it's not about whether the paintings are real or fake. It's about finding them. Which he thinks I can do because I'm Chinese. He thinks I can boldly go where no muscle-bound barbarian has gone before."
"Undercover in the teahouses and rice paddies of your people. Eavesdropping behind crimson columns. Parting the stalks in a bamboo grove."
"I actually think that's what he means."
"Well, good for him. How much does he say these paintings are worth?"
"Chaus from the eighties sell for three to six hundred thousand. And if these are real and new, meaning Chau's still alive, they could set off a feeding frenzy."
"Ah. Now chasing something that may not exist starts to make sense. Though I think your client's being a little cute about his motivation."
"By which you mean? ..."
"The thrill of the hunt, being the new kid in town, wanting the big boys to take him seriously. All that."
"You think it's baloney?"
"I think it's worse than that, but if I use those words I might not get more coffee." He held out his mug. "You said there was something off about him."
"Well, there was. I remember the art majors from college. The studio majors were on their own planet, of course, but even the dorkiest history-and-crit major was hipper than this guy."
"People change. Maybe he swerved to the right after he graduated."
"Then why is he collecting cutting-edge art?"
"Now he has a little money and he's loosening up again?"
"What are you saying? You think I'm wrong about something being off?"
"You're never wrong about that. I'm just giving you a hard time."
"Oh, good, in case I might forget who you are. So what do we think he's up to?"
Bill considered briefly. "Well, one possibility: it's exactly what he said. He's looking to make an end run around everyone else and snap these paintings up. But —"
"But you think it's about money, not the pure love of art."
"That didn't cross your mind?"
"Actually, it more than crossed it. It lodged there." I drank some more of my excellent tea. "In our entire conversation, he didn't once say anything about wanting to see the paintings. Wondering what they were like. How they might be different from the older ones, better or worse. What a thrill it would be if Ghost Hero Chau really were alive, and still painting."
"So. He may be a collector, but he's not a lover. He's gambling they're real and he wants to corner the market. You're shaking your head. Why?"
"I don't think he's a collector, either. I ran a background. No Jeff Dunbars his age in any of the databases. He gave me a business card with no business on it, only his name and phone number. Not even an e-mail. Now, that could mean he's rich enough not to work, rich enough he doesn't want anyone to know who he really is. Collecting art would go along with that, and I guess so would paying my retainer in cash —"
"How much, by the way? Unless it's none of my business."
"Since I'm paying you out of it, it can be your business. A grand against two days plus expenses. More after that, or we settle up if I find them sooner."
"A trustful sort of fellow, handing over cash like that."
Excerpted from Ghost Hero by S.J. Rozan. Copyright © 2011 S.J. Rozan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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!
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