THE PRISON TANGRAM by Claire Huot (Mercury Press), 224 pages, $17.95 paper. Rating: NNNN
Clair Huot, a Calgary-based culture writer and teacher of Chinese film, puts her 20 years living in China to good use in The Prison Tangran.
It’s a smart, saucy, sexy book, a real puzzler that keeps surprising right up to and past the end.
Rookie police detective Rey Pirelli is just one day on the job and a few weeks back in her Vermont hometown when two inmates of Montrose Detention Center for Women are found dead in their cells, an apparent love-pact suicide.
When a China connection is uncovered – one woman is a divorced Chinese-American film professor, the other an unemployed poor white single mother into qigong – Pirelli’s Beijing upbringing and fluent Mandarin land her the case.
The dialogue sizzles, the story’s full of tasty Chinese tidbits, and in true yin-yang fashion, opposites abound – and attract. Huot mixes and matches to great effect: the Caucasian mantra-reciting Pirelli and the outspoken, punkish victim May Ho can’t help but bust cultural stereotypes.
As Pirelli’s deadline for proving herself closes in, prison reform politics and racism reconfigure the puzzle.
But Rey-hee is all about patience, consulting the Yijing book of ancient Chinese proverbs for direction and boning up on her Chinese character writing. An encounter with a Chinese root of extraordinary properties finally leads to the answer she’s seeking.
Huot shows a real knack for laying out small, exquisite details and fitting them precisely together. The Prison Tangram is one of those satisfying mysteries that transports you to a totally different place – that space in your head reserved for the unexpected. Ganbei!