Mini-Reviews: East Asian Crime Fiction #AsianLitBingo #DiverseDetectives

I wish I could be one of those 15 books a month readers, but sadly I read more slowly, watch too much Netflix and stare into space a lot. Still, when a bunch of my fave bloggers create awesome events such as #AsianLitBingo I try to read more and watch less TV and this month I actually got more than the required minimum read, yay! Now, I just need to get those books reviewed, ahhh. Also, I strayed a bit from my tbr, as always, but also noticed this week that instead of completing lots of bingo squares I read several books for a few spaces, facepalm. So, yeah, themed mini-reviews it is and perhaps I’ll even manage to complete a line in the next few days. I’ll update the bingo card once I got that figured out.

Now, book 1 was actually on my tbr! And then uuum I went off on a #DiverseDetectives binge somehow. It’s my favorite genre, so it’s not a complete surprise.

body at the tower

The Agency: The Body at the Tower by Y.S. Lee is the second book in the Agency series around young Mary Quinn, a biracial detective in Victorian London. Now part of the Agency and with more detective training, Mary’s second case requires her to don the disguise of a young boy and solve a murder at a building site.

I really enjoyed the first book, the series is great for all of us who enjoy Victorian age mysteries but without the casual racism even white contemporary authors of the genre love to include for “authenticity” or whatever the fuck. Mary is Irish-Chinese but passes as Black Irish, which I hadn’t ever heard of before reading the series but appears to exist so white people can make sure other people know they have the cool “exotic something” but not that racial Other Brown.  Passing as kinda white, Mary can enter privileged social circles absolutely closed to people of color and with the political situation of the times, she definitely tries hard to appear not-Chinese. However, other Chinese characters she meets do recognize her, but Mary doesn’t feel part of the British-Chinese community. There’s little privilege found in claiming that identity, but it’s also shown that Mary does not feel that she belongs, having been orphaned at a young age and not knowing the language. I do love finding more mixed-race characters in literature and especially ones who cannot claim ethnic belonging since this is the closest I come to identifying with characters in that regard.

Apart from that, the mystery is quite good and the all-female agency is a perhaps fanciful, but welcome institution that cleverly makes use of women being relegated to the private sphere. The cool thing is that according to the author, the cover model actually fits Mary Quinn, so yay for not whitewashing the cover. I think the third book deals more with English-Chinese relations during the 19th century and with Mary trying to find a place for herself, so I look forward to reading that one soon.


Then I was looking for more mysteries with an Asian MC and the second book I found is a more suspenseful/thriller style kind of mystery. Set in the Midwest, A Person of Interest by Susan Choi follows the case of a bombing and an Asian-born math professor who ends up a person of interest in the FBI investigation. Now Choi seems to deliberately leave out the professor’s ethnicity but is very particular about the surveillance that Asian people in the US are subject to (this book is from 2008 by the way).

The story follows Lee, a professor at a third-rate university in the Midwest, not too far away from retirement. While Lee is a difficult character to carry the story, the third person narrative is unsympathetic but brutal in its examination of Lee. The professor takes self-loathing to a whole new level but at the same time is sure to make things about himself. This belief makes him jittery and anxious and the FBI takes a closer look at him, but an Asian immigrant? They’d been itching to do just that.

While this first part of the book is fast-paced, Choi brings in another narrative in flashbacks, of Lee as a younger man, of his first years in the US, of badly-handled relationships. I would’ve preferred these two narratives to be more neatly wrapped in the end, but Choi’s writing style is beautiful and the character study of Lee moves a bit too slowly but is so haunting that I didn’t really mind. The mystery does have a satisfying solution and Lee’s crime really is that he is closed-off and unlikable, he is not the deferential, overly emotive caricature white people prefer.

Choi has written several novels and I need to read my way through her backlist. Why hadn’t I heard of this author before?


Book three I chose cause I thought I might as well make a themed thing of it😁 Out by Natsuo Kirino is one most of you are probably familiar with and I thought I’d read it before but I think I confused it with Grotesque. Note to self, remember to update your goodreads regularly!

Out is a long one for me with 400 pages, but it’s utterly readable and I was hooked from the premise of a young woman killing her deadbeat husband and then getting her co-workers to help get rid of the body. Kirino is a star in the Japanese thriller/crime fiction scene and deservedly so. This is definitely not a cozy mystery, but definitely give it a go, if you’re not too squeamish. Set in Tokyo in the late 90s, this is a gritty, sometimes brutal story of women who feel trapped and unhappy in their lives. Kirino highlights their situation while also refusing to set these women up as sympathetic and driven too far. Her characters are flawed and do horrible things, but for me this together with the strong pacing and the moments of dark humor worked extremely well. Definitely recommended!

Are you participating in #AsianLitBingo? What have you been reading?

21 thoughts on “Mini-Reviews: East Asian Crime Fiction #AsianLitBingo #DiverseDetectives

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  1. Hah. I know what you mean: once you get to two books in your stack all-on-a-theme, it seems like the right thing to do, to add a third and call it a bookish plan! These are all on my TBR (well, the first book in Yee’s series, not the second), so I’m glad to hear they were all enjoyable! The Bingo sounds like a lot of fun, but I didn’t hear about it in time to rearrange my other reading projects; I’ve been reading some indigneous writers lately, including a series of Louise Erdrich’s books: all good!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh then a heads-up real quick in case you missed it: June is #RamadanReadathon, in case you wanna join in 🙂 Haha yes that’s exactly what happened, themed reading ftw! Oh yay really hope you’ll enjoy them, The Agency series is great cozy reading. Yay Erdrich, must read more by her, and yay for reading more indigeneous writers! Happy reading!

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  2. I read choi’s foreign student and loved it. A complex and beautiful novel of damaged souls and racism Chuck ( he is korean) experiences in South in 1950s.

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  3. I’m always happy when I see someone else who has read The Agency! Love your review for it – agreed that it explores the subtleties of belonging. I have book 3 at home but not book 2, which I need to remedy at some point. Kirino is also great at creating atmosphere in her books.

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    1. Hallo, Hallo! 🙂 I have spied The Agency series at my library for awhile now. I think at one point I started to read the first one but time & tides took me away into other books. I always meant to return back to them; so happy to hear others are starting to find the series as I thought it held a lot of promise.
      Ahh, yes, as I re-read this mini-review I remembered more of the story I had read; I was touched by how openly honest the narrative was approaching the complexities of fitting into society when your outwardly different than those around you. To where your self-identity might suffer a bit if your not confident in your own spirit and can rise above those who might seek to upset you. I liked how her identity and ethnicity were more unique than what you generally find in Historical Fiction. I need to re-borrow this series ASAP!

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    2. Yay for this series👌📚 Have you read them all yet? I think the author is starting a new series, hope it’ll be as good as this one😊 Kirino’s atmosphere is sooo suspenseful and kinda creepy👌


  4. Lovely reviews Bina!!!

    I don’t typically read mysteries or thrillers too often, so all of these books are new to me. Out sounds like a book that a few friends of mine would really enjoy, so I will definitely recommend it to them since you enjoyed it so much 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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