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year of the dog

24 may 2012

There is a lot of scene-setting in Henry Chang's Year of the Dog, but the setting is skillful and the scene is interesting, so the novel doesn't pall in the process. Things degenerate into a general inhumanity that seems out of place for the novel's date of composition, 2008 – and no wonder, because the novel is set quite a bit earlier, in the winter of 1993-94, when New York was a more dangerous place by several quanta. In fact, the whole world is a dangerous and depressing place in Year of the Dog, and there's no possible way to set it right: the forces of evil are too insidious and too widespread (and many of them are within us). All we can hope for is a little respite once in a while when the bad guys concentrate on killing one another.

Though billed as a "Detective Jack Yu Investigation" on its cover, Year of the Dog features almost no investigating. The first case Jack Yu encounters in the novel is a typical mystery. A family has sealed themselves into a luxury apartment, and died of carbon-monoxide poisoning from several deliberately-set open fires. If this were CSI or a Bill Pronzini novel, we'd know immediately that what looks like a suicide pact conceals some dastardly murder.

In the event, in Year of the Dog, the family's death is completely ignored for the rest of the novel, except as something Yu thinks about from time to time as emblematic of how bad the world is. Several other crimes occur in the novel, including one abjectly grisly murder. Yu does investigate that one (the killing of a Chinese deliveryman by black project-dwellers). But he investigates it in the sense of knocking on the killers' door and getting into a shootout. Meanwhile, the final gunfight on the streets of Chinatown is little-examined and ultimately inexplicable to the cops (though not to the reader, since we "see" the whole thing through a third-person narrator's eyes).

Which is just to say that though this is a detective novel, it's not a novel of detection. Despite its lurid fascinations, I have to say that I didn't like Year of the Dog as well as Chang's debut novel Chinatown Beat. It's not a racist text, but its black characters – indeed, many of its Chinese characters – are portrayed as deeply irredeemable, frozen into caricatures of stereotypical evil. Yu himself is a character of interesting depths, however, and I hope to see more of them as I read more of Henry Chang's work.

Chang, Henry. Year of the Dog. New York: Soho, 2008.