Reviewed by Maureen Corrigan
Washington Post Book World
Many years ago, I realized a girlhood dream: I joined the ranks of those anonymous contract writers known collectively as "Carolyn Keene" and wrote a Nancy Drew mystery. With visions of blue roadsters and unsavory hooligans dancing in my head, I sent the manuscript off to the publisher.
It was rejected. The reason? My plot, an editor told me, was "too sexually suggestive." I was mortified. I thought I'd crafted a thrilling but at the same time decorous and educational tale in which Nancy, Bess and George chased after a stolen antique infant feeding instrument (a "pap boat") that had once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. It turned out, however, that according to the keepers of the Nancy Drew flame, the mention of infant feeding instruments brought up -- I kid you not -- the "uncomfortable suggestion that Nancy herself has breasts." As Bess Marvin, Nancy's ultra-femme friend, might say, "Eeek!"
The plots of the classic Nancy Drew mysteries focus resolutely on the safe topic of stolen jewels, especially jewels with interesting histories. I never got around to substituting pearls for pap boats, but no matter. Whether intentionally or not, in The Shanghai Moon S.J. Rozan has written a far more ambitious and absorbing riff on the classic Nancy Drew mystery than I ever could have.
Ethnicity aside, Rozan's Lydia Chin is a private investigator very much in the Nancy mold (that is, if Nancy were grown up and Chinese American), carrying forward -- in this, her 11th outing -- the young female detective's brisk approaches to crime-solving and complications of the heart. Let's begin with the latter. Lydia's occasional partner in crime-fighting, Bill Smith, has been AWOL for months, trying to get his sense of perspective back after a particularly devastating case. When someone else very close to Lydia is murdered, Bill abruptly reappears to help solve the mystery. As ever, the sparks between the two could ignite a Chinese New Year firecracker, and Lydia's old-school mom's disapproval of Mr. White Bread just stokes their relationship. Despite her longings, however, ladylike Lydia keeps Bill at a chaste distance, allowing only the kind of hugs that Nancy Drew would permit from Ned Nickerson.
If Lydia and Bill's dance of attraction/distraction is a staple of this series, so are Rozan's exquisitely crafted plots. (She's won the Edgar Award twice, the Shamus, the Anthony and on and on.) The Shanghai Moon is a standout in this series in terms of narrative sweep and the lush aura of romance. Here's the gist: Lydia is hired to help trace a cache of jewels (girl sleuth alert!) that's recently been unearthed in a garden in Shanghai and swiped by a corrupt Chinese official who's now believed to be hiding in Lydia's home turf: New York's Chinatown. Lydia's client tells her that the box containing the jewelry had been buried since World War II. It may or may not include a brooch called the Shanghai Moon, which has become the stuff that dreams are made of. Even Bill claims to have heard of it while serving in the Navy in Asia. Learning of her latest case, he scoffs to Lydia: "It was the Pacific seaman's equivalent of the Brooklyn Bridge. If you were particularly clueless, some guy would always offer to sell you the Shanghai Moon."
Lydia's race to find the stolen gems -- and possibly even the legendary brooch -- before various plug uglies can lay their paws on the treasure constitutes one plotline here. There's also an even more tumultuous background narrative that comprises a series of letters taking readers back to wartime Shanghai. Reading the letters as her investigation grows more desperate, Lydia clearly feels a connection to a spunky World War II counterpart. Such is the power of Rozan's engrossing storytelling that readers, even the most hard-boiled among us, will feel that connection, too.
Turns out that the Nancy Drew purists know what they're talking about, after all. As The Shanghai Moon demonstrates, there's plenty of possibility lurking in the old missing-gems plot. It just takes a master like S.J. Rozan to restore the luster of a classic.
Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air." She teaches a course in detective fiction at Georgetown University.
Books mentioned in this post