Genre fiction is, in a sense, a covenant between writer and reader. The writer agrees to abide by certain conventions, which allow the reader to make certain assumptions--assumptions that, in turn, facilitate the quick and easy digestion of the narrative. This is not always true, as genre can be both highly experimental and surprisingly artful. But it is often true, and it is more true of crime fiction than other categories of genre. There is the unsolved event, the intriguing clue, the snowballing investigation, the red herring and--finally--the big reveal. On top of that, of course, there is the personal narrative, which must link the central mystery to some momentous event in the investigator's life, in turn rendering the narrative--and by extension the book--relatable on a human level.
This structure of tropes not only features in most crime fiction; it defines what is and isn't crime fiction. For crime writers, then, the devil really is in the details, with standouts measured by a delicate balancing act between executing the tried-and-true and innovating on the margins.
Steph Cha's Follow Her Home is an interesting debut precisely in what it does on the margins of what is otherwise a highly conventional detective story. Juniper Song is an unemployed, Raymond Chandler-obsessed millennial dilettante living in mid-city Los Angeles. At a party, her friend Luke convinces her to do some snooping, to see if his father--a wealthy lawyer--is sleeping with a junior associate at the firm, who is present at the party and near-blackout drunk. Song drives her home but is then summarily knocked unconscious by an unknown assailant. When she wakes up and retrieves her car, she discovers the body of another junior associate in her trunk. She then receives a mysterious phone call from a man who threatens to harm her family if she tells the police, and also seems to know about her sister's suicide--a deeply traumatic event that Song rarely discusses with anyone. Rather than back off, however, Song digs deeper into an unfolding mystery with disturbing parallels to her sister's death.
By the usual metrics, Follow Her Home is a pretty ho-hum debut. The mystery is not only formulaic, but nonsensical with alarming frequency. Characters repeatedly implicate themselves for no apparent reason other than to move the plot along, use violence when it would not advisable for someone trying to hide secrets to use violence (for example the unknown assailant who makes the murder he just committed known to Song, despite nothing otherwise linking him to the crime)--and then fail to use it when it would be. What's more, the motivations of several major characters remain unclear even at the book's end. Oh, and the prose often struggles to establish the appropriate mood (especially in those moments when we are supposed to feel Song's fear).
At the same time, Follow Her Home is quite a fun read. Song is a likable and relatable protagonist, and even if Cha is not exactly Chandler, the novel is briskly paced and hard to put down. And as much as the mystery presents problems for the reader, Song's personal narrative--the story of what happened to her sister--is very compelling.
Thematically, the book explores the "Asian girl fetish" and its impact on Asian women, and this I also thought was very well done. Cha differentiates between interracial coupling and the kind of toxic race fetishism that infantilizes Asian women or categorizes them as "highly-sexual-but-submissive" objects that exist to serve (non-Asian) male desires. Cha explores how this kind of racialized fetishism has impacted Song (who is, of course, an Asian woman).
But what really struck me was how clearly and unobtrusively Cha sets out the issues. This is not "message-forward" fiction where the story is a delivery system for the social message, but rather a piece of fiction that effectively addresses a social issue in such a way as to enhance the story. And Song's perspective feels instantly relatable, in the sense that you quickly come to understand how the issue looks through her eyes. In fact, I'd wager that readers who have never thought about this issue with any depth are likely to see things differently after finishing Follow Her Home.
In the end, Follow Her Home is a light, breezy but somewhat clunky detective story that nevertheless manages to stick with you due to the charisma of its protagonist and deft handling of a complex social issue.
Baseline Assessment: 6/10
Bonuses: +1 for Song and her backstory; +1 for the deft exploration of complex social issues.
Penalties: -1 for but it's otherwise pretty forgettable; -1 for and then there's all the stuff related to the central mystery that makes no sense when you really think about it.
Nerd Coefficient: 6/10. "Enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore."
POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.
Reference: Cha, Steph. Follow Her Home [Minotaur, 2013]