A Tale About a Tiger and Other Mysterious Events
by S. J. Rozan
Crippen & Landru Publishers
Paper: 243 pages
ISBN (cloth): 978-1-932009-89-7 … (paper): 978-1-932009-90-3
$42.00 (cloth) … $17.00 (paper)

Multiple-award-winning private eye (p.i.) author S. J. Rozan is equally at home writing novels or short stories. Crippen & Landru has collected together some prime examples of her work in the short form.

Rozan’s tone in these stories varies from decidedly grim to lightly humorous, but she never strays very far from what is usually called the “real” world — or at least the world typically envisioned by private eye authors (i.e., that environment of unremitting sin and corruption in high and low places which p.i. writers have created by common consent and inhabited with sinful and corrupt characters who are never more than one step removed from being stereotypes) — a world, in brief, that is as real and yet as unreal as Middle Earth.

All of which in no wise detracts from Rozan’s story-telling skill; when it comes to p.i. fiction, she may be one of its foremost contemporary practitioners.

“Night Court” takes us to an unexpected place, almost to another universe, yet it’s where we live daily:

Murph took his seat on the bench, after which the assembled multitudes, who had been bidden by Rossi to stand, sat also. Not that they were all that multitudinous: night court didn’t allow spectators. The only people here were directly connected with the case. The attorneys, the witnesses, Rossi, the guards. And the defendant. Murph watched Leopold squirm. The guy looked pale. Well, he ought to. He was in big trouble.

Rozan gives a p.i. named Smith in one story and Bill Smith in another two cases (“Hoops” and “Childhood”) keyed to the shortcomings of the social system:

     “Why me?” I asked. “Curtis knows every piece of black slime that ever walked the earth, but he sent you a white detective. Why?”
     “Cause the slime we looking for,” Raymond said evenly, “I don’t believe they black.”

“Passline” is a departure for Rozan, not a p.i. story but a character study of a man, a compulsive gambler, under extreme pressure:

     And the people who built this place (not the first time, not the old days, but now), they knew, too. They built everything huge and so obviously fake because of it. No one talked about it (that was part of it, the shared secret) but they didn’t want you to forget it. They knew the rush was better because of the desert. They knew the illusion only worked because of the truth.
     And the truth was, if he didn’t come home with $400,000 for Bennie, Taylor was a dead man.

In “Seeing the Moon,” Chinese-American private eye and fine art connoisseur Jack Lee gets involved in an art swindle:

    “Molly told me he gives you the hives.”
    “Hives, he makes me itch? Yah, that’s good, Jack! Yes, it’s bad enough, the people who buy and sell art as a commodity, with no love. But to cheat also, this is abhorrent. Such men must be avoided. You cannot win against a man like that.”

The remaining four stories in A Tale About a Tiger feature Rozan’s famous series character, Chinatown p.i. Lydia Chin, who sometimes joins forces with her “barbarian” partner Bill Smith. The first one is “Film at Eleven,” where Lydia is on the trail of a murderer who seems to have gotten away with it:

As it had been when our eyes first met, my skin crawled now, so near Mitch Ellman. The way he leaned a little too close; the way his teeth seemed pointed when he smiled; the way his eyes held mine too long every time they met: I wanted to get up and move, to put actual, physical distance between us.

In “Subway,” a rape case escalates into murder — of the witnesses:

      “I told you, no one was sure-sure. Or if they were, they wouldn’t say. And they can’t get DNA without a court order if he don’t want to give it. They can’t get a court order unless they arrest him, which they can’t without probable cause. They got no conviction in the prior and no i.d., they got no probable cause. Besides,” she added, shaking her head, “they lost him.”
      “What do you mean, lost him?”
      “He disappeared. After the line-up. He’s scum but I guess he’s not stupid.”

With “A Tale About a Tiger,” folk lore leads to fraud — and also to gunplay:

      “Fifteen, Ho. That’s a cool $135,000, in good American cash. Take it and run.”
       “That will barely cover my expenses,” Ho objected, “much less compensate me for the risks I’ve taken in obtaining these items, and bringing them into this country.”
       Meaning, I thought, bribing and poaching and smuggling.

Finally, in “Double-Crossing Delancey,” Lydia must outcon a consummate conman:

Well, that would be like Joe: giving away as little as possible, even to his business partner. Controlling the information minimizes the chance of error, misstep, or deliberate double-cross. As, for example, what Charlie and I were up to right now.

If you like your private eyes both hard- and soft-boiled but imbued with a social conscience, A Tale About a Tiger should satisfy you. S. J. Rozan strikes a fine balance between the extremes of Miss Marple and Mike Hammer, and for that reason — as well as her smooth prose — these stories will be of interest.

(Parental warning: Strong language, not for children.)

Mike Gray