Beijing Payback by Daniel Nieh (HarperCollins)

Victor Li is a typical American twenty-two-year-old, more interested in what he can do on a basketball court than in a college classroom; he smokes weed once in a while, and was just busted for a DUI. But unlike any of his buddies, Victor is trying to cope with his father’s recent murder. Vincent Li died from  “two precise stabs in the chest and a clean slash across,” leaving his son a peculiar legacy: an attache case filled with stacks of cash, a Walther PPQ, and a Chinese passport bearing Victor’s name. 

Then a stranger from China shows up, revealing the business Victor’s father was enmeshed in before he emigrated to the States, in conjunction with three men who remained in China, and claiming Vincent Li’s murder resulted from a disagreement among partners. The stranger knows; Sun worked for Victor’s father since childhood in “China America trade,” a smuggling business that became so murky that it led to murder. And, as both Sun and a letter written to Victor by his father make clear, this murder leads to a clear-cut need for revenge against the partners who arranged the death.

Suddenly Victor is on a China-bound plane with a newly acquired passport, a PPQ, a hefty pile of cash, and Sun.  In Beijing Sun leads Victor to the luxurious underground bunker that belongs to the one partner who can be trusted, a nightclub that’s a Chinese version of Star Wars’ Cantina Bar, an upscale coffee shop “filled with solo expats and their MacBook Airs.”  Within this bizarre and twisted labrynth Victor encounters a mosaic of separate puzzle pieces: a gorgeous woman who uses her body as a trap, a French journalist who willingly sacrifices bodily harm for career success, and a bag of ketamine lying near a corpse with a long incision running down the side of his stomach.

In a stunning first novel, Daniel Nieh takes the format of a conventional crime thriller, turns it inside out, and slowly divulges its intricacies and its plot twists bit by bit. His richness of detail threatens to swamp his narrative but Nieh is always in control, ending an impenetrable puzzle with a surprise that’s impossible to anticipate, yet makes perfect sense. Beginning as a quick and forgettable beach read, Beijing Payback becomes the story of a rite of passage, as Victor Li moves from a bright California boyhood into Beijing’s underworld. Wading through crime, blood, and death, he discovers who his father really was and what his own future may hold.

And yet not all is gloom and slaughter--the book is lightened with the sardonic humor of Victor’s college friends and his older sister, given depth with its precise and vivid descriptions of the American Dream and the Chinese Miracle. Best of all, its open-ended conclusion leaves room for more at least one more exploration of Victor’s odyssey into adulthood, showing why he’s on that bus, heading north. 

Although it’s only a possibility that readers haven’t seen the last of Victor Li,  it’s a certainty that Daniel Nieh will come up with another smart and riveting novel. The only flaw is it can’t come soon enough.~Janet Brown

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