The Rage of Plum Blossoms by Christine M. Whitehead is a fairly conventional mystery story. There a few twists in the telling on the way to find the identity of a killer but we are pretty sure from the start that a murder has taken place and we read the story to find out the who and the why. As readers, we know a murder has taken place; the police do not agree, the medical examiner does not agree, the parents of the victim apparently do not agree, the victim’s best friend is uncommunicative. Only wife Quinnie believes that Jordan did not commit suicide. She knows her husband as an ex-marine, cum laude graduate from university, and a successful investment banker. She didn’t even know how successful he was until a lawyer told her she was left with a totally paid for three-story brownstone building in New York and twenty-seven million dollars. She didn’t mind the million given to his university and five million to his family.
Quinn Chang would never accept that her husband Jordan Chang would commit suicide. Especially not in front of the dog, Tink. Quinn was a successful divorce attorney. After spending nine months in grief, Quinn decided to investigate and solve what she was sure was a murder. She did not have confidence in her investigative talents despite being somewhat of an undercover part-time DEA secret agent.
Here we come to the weakest part of the novel. It seems Quinn had studied Chinese in university for four years and by the time of graduation could speak Chinese Mandarin so fluently that she had no problem using it on the phone. She continued her studies in Vermont at Middlebury College and picked up Cantonese as well as bits of other major dialects. Her fluency in Chinese was what made her valuable to the DEA. As she defended Chinese speaking clients she would overhear bits and pieces of drug information which she would pass to the DEA. Of course, she had to keep her Chinese language ability secret from everyone, even her husband. But she told Jordan, her American-born Chinese husband.
Claimed language fluency is the weak point. It is very rare for someone to even approach fluency by studying language in a university, but I’ll give the author that one. Middlebury in Vermont is very famous with a well deserve reputation in language development. But one just doesn’t “pick up” Cantonese, let alone bits of the other (up to 15) major dialects. Chinese is a tonal language and the tones are not common across dialects. Chinese Mandarin uses four tones, Cantonese uses nine and is vastly dissimilar in vocabulary. Reading and writing can ease communication across dialects if the student is careful to study both simplified and complex forms of characters. Quinn presumably studied other subjects other than Chinese in university, her language studies would not have been intensive. I studied Mandarin Chinese intensively eight hours per day for fourteen months. That was after I had studied Cantonese Chinese eight hours per day for twelve months. Talented polyglots (which I am not) would be envious of language skills claimed here. Additionally, since she had to keep her language abilities secret from everyone, she would have had no chance to practice. Lack of practice equals a dramatic degradation in language use skill over a very short period of time.
Readers who happen to be students of language take this kind of stuff seriously.
Once Quinn made her decision to investigate, she had to find help with gathering information. She cobbled together a group reminiscent of the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow. There was Bernie, a retired cop and current groundskeeper for a city park. Good, that gets us investigative skill. There was Ray, several years Quinn’s junior and a graduate student in Southeast Asian studies (and languages). This was valuable because Quinn would soon discover that there were some letters left behind by Jordan written in Lao by a former spy colleague. And there was Sam who seemed to be an expert in perfume fragrances. I am not sure why he was a valuable addition to the team. Jordan forgot to tell Quinn he had been one of the super-secret types carrying out unauthorized missions in Southeast Asia. And she was not supposed to tell him about her DEA work. Jordan also didn’t tell her he was carrying out some intelligence activities in New York to stem the flow of drugs and human trafficking. This family has lots of secrets. And that is not considering the child Jordan left behind in Laos many years before.
The anti-crime efforts of Jordan are probably what got him killed. This is not much of a surprise. But when Quinn started asking questions, ones that would invite the attention of law enforcement, she became a target of Lao and presumably Chinese gangs, as did her friends Ray, Bernie, and Sam. It was probably good that Quinn had a lot of time after language studies to become a crack shot with a pistol and become a martial arts expert in Krav Maga.
Even though I thought the novel ended with a whimper (and a predictable one at that) I liked the book because of the Asian background. I disagreed with assertions made about language but found some of the cultural comparison notes interesting. I think I would have fun corresponding with this author about different interpretations non-Asians make when living in a predominantly Asian society. I don’t know how interesting the novel would be for a reader without such a cultural interest but I liked it.