Ghost Month (2014), the first of the (to-date two; the second is Incensed) Taipei Night Market mysteries by Ed Lin, is a somewhat chaotic mix of opinions about various facets of Tawan’s culture and history with a thriller plot. The latter involves government(s) collusion with Chinese gangs, covert technology transfer to the PRC and the murder of Julia Huang. Julia grew up with the narrator, Jing-nan. Both of their parents had stands in a Taipei night market. She was a better student than he, but he was good enough to get into UCLA (while she went to NYU).
They had agreed not to have any contact until they graduated, at which point they would wed. Because Jing-nan’s father was dying, he returned to Tapei and his mother was killed in a traffic accident on the way to pick him up from the airport. After which his father died and he inherited gambling debts from his grandfather, so had to run the night market stand. Fortunately, he also inherited a staff of two very competent cooks, the burly Ami (one of the fourteen recognized aboriginal groups on Taiwan), Dwayne, and the son of a mainlander, Frankie. Jing-nan is a benshengren (Han who went from Fujien to Taiwan before it was ceded to Japan in 1895), so the stand provides a sample of interethnic antagonism with a descendant each of the original Austronesian inhabitants, of the early “settlers” (who, like American ones pushed aside the aboriginal inhabitants), and of the Chinese who fled the loss of the civil war to the communists and took over what the Japanese had developed (jobs, housing, infrastructure).
Jing-nan has renamed the shop selling skewers of sausage and internal organs of pigs “Unknown Pleasures” in honor of his favorite album by his favorite post-punk band, Joy Division. Its lead singer, Ian Curtis, committed suicide in 1979, something like a decade before Jing-nan was born.
Jing-nan is shocked to learn that Julia (1) has been murdered and (2) was working as a scantily clad seller of betel nuts at a roadside stand on an exit to Hsinchu City (35 miles south of Taipei’s international airport in Taoyuan). He did not know that she had returned to Taiwan and finds it difficult to believe that she could have been employed as a near-prostitute (or a more than near one).
After visiting Julia’s parents (and being warned off trying to find out what had happened to her by seeming gangsters), Jing-nan contacts two of their schoolmates who had also gone to NYU, Peggy (from a very affluent mainlander family of entrepreneurs) and a doughy boy everyone called “Cookie Monster.”
At a music emporium called Bauhaus, he meets a young woman three years his junior who idolized him when they were in high school, Nancy. (Peggy also had a major crush on him, though he was very visibly focused on Julia.) Thus, most of the major characters other than the Unknown Pleasure employees went to school together
Jing-nan has also inherited the illegally constructed shack in which his grandfather and father died. It is near the major tourist attraction temple in Taipei, Longshan, one that also has heavy traffic, especially during Ghost Month (the seventh lunar month) from Taiwanese, with altars to multiple gods, the goddess Mazho, and the bodhisattva Guan Yin. Julia and Jing-nan scoffed at the profusion of Taiwanese deities and their worshippers, but he ends up going there on instructions beyond the grave from her (she visits him in dreams).
(offerings at a Taipei temple (Hsian Tian Kong)
(worsipper in Longshan Temple)
In addition to two major romances and the longings of the two other Taiwanese who went to NYU, where they had little contact with Julia, and a dogged murder investigation opposed by police and the dominant (Black Sea) gang, Jing-nan opines at length about punk and post-punk Anglophone bands (I only recall one mention of a Taiwanese singer and no mention of any Taiwanese or Japanese bands), Taiwanese religious syncretism (placating gods and deities to be on the safe side even if one is not convinced they exist), love/sex, and official corruption (both police and building inspectors and permit-issuers), and the complicated history of expropriations).
I find Jing-nan convincing, albeit very in the noir tradition of a non-professional investigator who is clueless about how gangs and government collude, and there is plenty of plot with developments I did not foresee. There is lots of specificity about Taiwan geography and traffic, weather and pollution (the latter has improved considerably since the completion of the subway system). Other than not caring about his “musical” favorites, I thought there were too many dreams in the book. And I thought the characterizations were strong, varied, and interesting.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray