Judy Fisher, once a girl dreaming of becoming a writer, is now a hooker (by choice, to some degree). In a hotel room when Murder in China Red opens, she's gone there with a German, a man she picked up. Unknown to him, she has been hired by an industrial espionage team to gather some information from him. While he sleeps, she goes through his clothes and finds nothing. That's not her fault. She did what she was hired to do. It's not her fault the man didn't have what the others wanted.
Suddenly the door bursts open and two men enter. In minutes, the German and Judy are dead, shot to death by guns with silencers. Who killed them? Why was the German killed at all? Poor Judy, just a working girl who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or...
Judy Fisher was a former friend and lover of "The Chinaman", the primary character in this book (aptly so, since the book is one of a series dubbed "The Chinaman Mystery Series") and he is a character worth knowing. At two inches over six feet, he's big, tough and intelligent. Prior to becoming a private detective (and part-time editor of porn) he was a creative writing teacher. That was how he met Judy: she was a student in one of his classes. He is living in New York City now but was born in China, having come to New York as a refugee. Both his parents were killed by Mao fanatics before his eyes and he still has flashbacks of their deaths.
"His parents stood on a bamboo platform in the center of the mob with placards hanging from their necks describing their 'crimes'. The hands of those he loved were tied behind them, their heads lowered in shame and despair. Half of his mother's hair had been shaved and his father's face was swollen and bloody from repeated beatings. They had refused to 'confess'."
Terrible memories, but the Chinaman has, to a large degree, left his Chinese roots behind. He is more American now than Chinese. His demeanor is neither diffident nor Charlie Chan-like. The Chinaman (his actual name is Liu Chiang-hsin, which means "a mind as sharp as a sword") is more Sam Spade than not, and this book reads like a good solid Sam Spade mystery. The Chinaman is mostly wise cracks and tough attitude, along with a few occasional philosophical ruminations.
He needs to be tough. He is not well liked by Detective Abrams, who just happens to be investigating Judy's murder as well. Abrams is also the Chinaman's ex-father-in-law and dislikes the Chinaman for cheating on his daughter. It so happens that Judy was the person the Chinaman cheated on Abram's daughter with. Now Abrams likes to make his life miserable. The Chinaman needs to be tough for another reason as well -- in his chosen profession he goes against some pretty violent characters. His life is very often on the line.
As it is in this investigation. The Chinaman still, to some degree, carries feelings for Judy, or at least remembers that he loved her, and he wants nothing more than to find out who killed her and bring them to justice. He wants them to pay. Whether she was simply "collateral damage" in the murder of the German or whether she was meant to die, he wants her killers to pay.
His investigation leads him in various directions, one of which is to Cindy Mae, another hooker and Judy's friend. Cindy Mae was questioned by the police but she withheld Judy's appointment book from them, from Abrams, wanting the names in the book for herself. But she hands the book over to the Chinaman, and he utilizes it in his attempt to discover who killed his former lover.
The mystery is a good one, but the primary reason for reading Murder in China Red rests in the character of the Chinaman. He is interesting enough to carry the book and, here and there, his insights actually give one pause to think. For example at one point, he states that he envies Chinese born in America as they could call themselves "disenfranchised victims" without an inkling of how thoroughly American that was. Isn't that so? Americans love to be part of a group that is somehow victimized by someone or something else. It's part of our culture now and has been for the last half century.
The next book in the Chinaman series will be Murder in Dominatrix Black. If Mr. Barrett can maintain the quality shown in Murder in China Red, this will be a good mystery series indeed.