Beware Beware by Steph Cha
Beware Beware by Steph Cha (Minotaur, 2014) has an immediate point of interest. When it comes to characterisation, I’m completely indifferent as to who the author picks as the point of view. My only requirement is that the individual feels reasonably credible and that I can learn something about what it feels like to be that person. So, as a now semi-fossilised man who first got a clear understanding of the world before the excitement of feminism moved the 1960s forward in the debate about liberation and gender equality, I often find myself depressed by the failure of contemporary writers to show the appalling discrimination still visited on women and the other marginalised sexual communities. With seminal books like The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer becoming best-sellers in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had hoped for better.
So this is the second book to feature Juniper Song. In theory, this is my chance to learn something of the life of a Korean American woman and about Koreatown in LA. She has completed the transition from Yale graduate into a job learning the ropes as a private investigator. For those of you who missed Follow Her Home (2013), her efforts as an amateur sleuth got her best friend killed. Now, under the supposed guidance of Chaz Lindley, she’s handed-off to Daphne Freamon, a painter who lives in New York. It seems the client’s boyfriend, Jamie Landon, is currently in LA acting as a ghostwriter for film star Joe Tilley. That he may either be snorting coke or dealing it, is offered as a possible explanation for him failing to stay in touch with Daphne. When Joe Tilley is found dead in his hotel bath tub after what seems to have been one of his traditionally debauched parties, Jamie becomes a person of interest. This brings Daphne to town and the show can get on the road. As a subplot, a sinister man is stalking Lori, Song’s roommate. Fortunately, he’s shot before he can do any serious damage. This gives us two deaths to think about.
First as to the plot: this is one of these deceptively simple stories. I suppose it follows in the classic PI novel tradition of having a dogged detective go round the town talking with people. Some our detective manages to extract useful information from. Others clam up when the wrong questions are asked. Such are the highs and lows when you pound the mean streets. The point of the exercise is, of course, to work out who everyone is and, more importantly, what their history is. This all works well as our PI slowly peels away the layers of onion, all the while finding the tears beginning to flow. Indeed, at one point, her questions are the direct cause of another death. This is chastening (i.e. psychologically traumatic). When you look back, this is nicely constructed and elegantly simple both as a mystery and a thriller.
But I have a problem with the Korean connection. I recognise the physical places and, in more recent years, I too have sipped my way through some high ABV soju with appropriately pleasing results. To that extent, the book does justice to the transplanted food and alcohol. But apart from one brief mention of racial tension, there’s no effort made to deal with the sometimes difficult relationship between the Korean community and the surrounding cultures, nor between the older and younger generations of Koreans. We do get some indication of both alliances between Koreans and Mexicans in gang culture, and involvement in more general crime by some in the Korean community. The author, however, prefers not to deal with the often quite serious racism afflicting the non-white communities, save that there’s some reference to the difficulty African Americans have in gaining acceptance by Hollywood. But it’s when we come to the sexism the author steps out of the real and into a fantasy PI world.
In the interests of balance, I admit one of the themes of the book is the willful failure of male-dominated organisations including police forces to investigate allegations of rape. Even at the best of times, it’s assumed the women are partly to blame even though it’s the men who force women to wear sexualised clothing. This is also seen in the failure of the courts to give priority to Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment, “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” to create real sex discrimination provisions, e.g. to prevent decisions as in the Hobby Holly case which makes the notion of a woman’s autonomy over her own body subject the the religious scruples of others. With the disapproving allowed to picket outside clinics providing abortion services to discourage women from entering, even rape victims find it difficult to terminate the unwanted child.
It may be bad for women in general, but Juniper Song is a Korean American woman who’s trying to navigate her way through the currents of Korean culture, the slightly rarified world of Hollywood stardom and the agents and managers who protect the illusion of magic, and the sceptical world of the police. Let’s start in Korean culture. This is one of the more extreme examples of patriarchal control. Despite the modernity of the country, South Korea has not progressed very far beyond mediaeval times when it comes to the question of gender equality. This male dominance has come under pressure through the move to America. The older Koreans have therefore resorted to ghettoisation in an attempt to retain the old values by holding themselves aloof from the surrounding world. But the young inevitably mix outside the ghetto walls and are infected by Western ideas of equality. This produces sometimes quite violent responses. When it comes to the police, our hero is given a female homicide detective to deal with. How convenient! No-one of any race or gender refuses to speak with her or is less than polite to her (at least, when she’s sober). The only feature that marks her out from the norm is her willingness to drink excessive amounts of alcohol and thereby put herself in danger. Sadly, this recklessness is not limited to Korean American women.
Put all this together and Beware Beware is a good story (the title referring to a painting), but I’m greatly saddened by the failure to be honest about the problems faced by non-white women in a fundamentally racist and sexist society. Just singling out rape and the problems faced by women who try to complain of sexual assault highlights the tip of the iceberg. This is not to say I’m for a more literary style of books that examine social issues at a deeper level. I’m just against the idea books by women, presumably written for a mainly female readership, should conform to patriarchal expectations. Unless, of course, I’m perversely undervaluing the message of this book. Perhaps this book is really a rallying cry for women of the world to rise up in a wave of vigilanteism and, whenever a women is raped, advocating she and her sisters seek out the man responsible and string him up from the nearest tree (or street lamp if in a city). Now that would be radical feminism in action.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.