Juniper Song is your fairly typical Korean-American mid-20s post-college student (if you can imagine that graduate being pretty rich.) She’s not doing much, just some part-time work and some socializing, taking in the LA scene, a pile of high heels in the passenger seat of her car and cigarettes in her glove box. She has also been a fanatical lover of Philip Marlowe and everything noir since high school. “I savored his words, studied his manners and methods,” she says. “I carried him with me like an idol.” So when her best friend Luke asks her to investigate his father, on the flimsiest of evidence — he’s found an unexplained Chanel receipt and thinks his dad is having an affair with a girl named Lori Lim — Song snaps up his offer. It fits with her notion of herself as a wisecracking private eye with a heart of gold, even though she knows deep down that she has no idea what she’s doing.
And as a matter of fact, everything goes fine for about fifteen minutes, until Song is whacked unconscious by an unknown assailant outside Lori Lim’s house. This knockout sends her spinning into a noir world where the body count begins to mount, beginning with a dead body she doesn’t recognize in the trunk of her car. Nothing is what she thinks it is, and nothing is what it should be according to the tropes of noir fiction she’s read all her life. She meets a femme fatale and she’s an overbearing mother; she meets a seductress and she’s an Asian schoolgirl who’s saving herself for her husband. Nothing endures but the cigarettes and the booze.
Steph Cha uses the themes of noir fiction to point out how brittle and outmoded the structure is. Seeping in around the edges like toxic waste are constructs of race and gender, as Song encounters white men who fetishize young Asian-American women. (There’s one particularly gross moment where Song finds revealing photos of a Korean-American girl in a hanbok, a Japanese-style school uniform, and a kimono. The man these photos are for doesn’t care about the specifics of ethnicity, just Asianness.) And what fuels Song’s detection, and her sense that justice must be done whatever the cost, is the ghost of her dead sister Iris, also entangled to her peril with a much-older white man. Indeed, Iris is the reason Song is so obsessed with Marlowe and noir in the first place. Family becomes its own mystery. “After what happened to Iris,” Song confesses, “the favorite character of my youth became a fixture in my life. I found more than fantasy in the world of noir, and I sank into the scorching bleakness with self-punishing relish.” But Song can’t live up to her hero Marlowe, and she can’t save her sister. The noir just keeps getting darker.
Juniper Song uses the phrases and similes of her hero like tossing back another bourbon. “She was about as hard to spot as a clown in a prison cafeteria, wearing just a shade less makeup.” “Mr. Cook was about as warm and playful as an onion.” “It took me a seventy-second minute to remember the BMW.” This prose isn’t always entirely successful, but who could really imitate Raymond Chandler’s baroque voice? And it makes sense: Song can’t live up to her hero in any other way, so why should she be able to live up to his prose, either? It’s not disastrous, just not delirious the way the actual Marlowe novels are. It’s workmanlike stuff. And if the language isn’t as evocative as the original, Steph Cha does pull out affecting reasons why detection takes place.
My one question about this novel is this: it’s the first of a series. The body count in this novel is so high that I can’t imagine what’s next. Where could Song possibly go from here? I’m quite curious about the second novel in the series, Beware Beware, and I’m likely to pick that up sometime soon.