YOU'RE GOING to have a tough time if you invoke Philip Marlowe in your LA-noir novels. Steph Cha’s debut, Follow Her Home, introduced nascent gumshoe Juniper Song by following Song — it’s what everyone calls her — into the Marlowe Apartments in Hancock Park, where Song’s best friend, Luke Cook, is having a party. Despite Song’s seductively monochrome outfit (“a slinky black dress, black patent leather platform pumps, silver cascade earrings, and a black lambskin clutch”), she’s not the femme fatale; the great detective himself is whom she’s destined to emulate.
The name of the apartment block isn’t just a sly nod to a master; Marlowe’s ghost hangs around the halls of Follow Her Home in Cha’s use of stylistic pastiche and explicit borrowing from the habits and methods of Chandler’s detective. There’s also the City of Angels, of course, its glitz as brilliantine and its abysses as slick and depthless as ever. But there is a clumsy earnestness to the way Cha’s heroine states her love for her fictional predecessor, as if repeated statements of devotion will take the place of character building. Cha’s representation of the seedier parts of LA’s Koreatown and her critique of white men with “yellow fever” — a penchant for Asian women like Korean-American Song and damsel-in-distress Lori — should be a bull’s-eye hallmark for a crime novel with such a unique setting and protagonist, yet they feel like pedagogy rather than plot. Ultimately, Follow Her Home doesn’t quite hit the mark of sharply observed, quick-moving LA noir.
Beware Beware is a different story, however, one that’s told with a stronger sense of Song’s identity and a firmer grasp on narrative. This new tale capitalizes on the events of Follow Her Home with sense and subtlety. Opening with a guffaw-inducing vignette featuring personal grooming in the office, Beware features a Song who has settled into her skin. Now a “scrappy errand girl” at private investigation firm Lindley & Flores, Song is working cases for real, albeit “straightforward assignments on cheating spouses.”
Her new case, tailing aspiring screenwriter Jamie Landon, seems like it will be similar fare. His long-distance girlfriend, painter Daphne Freamon, worries that Jamie’s revisited his old coke habit, a tic that might be all too easy or necessary in his job as assistant to fading Hollywood star Joe Tilley. Since Daphne’s in New York, and she can’t keep an eye on Jamie, she hires Song to do it.
Seasoned readers of crime fiction know that in the course of any novel, detectives’ personal lives generally take a hit. For Song, whose loss of her best friends and younger sister was her driving force in Follow Her Home, Daphne’s easy manner is like a siren’s call. Client and detective fall into an easy camaraderie, and as they form a friendship — sharing secrets, and drinking over the phone — Song knows she’s ignoring the boundaries of professionalism. And yet, and yet: when Song receives a photo of her mark, she knows she’s met him before. In fact, she was attracted to him, too, in a fleeting chance exchange over a parking space — LA’s version of the meet-cute. Although Song knows it’s dangerous to get overinvolved with Daphne and her handsome paramour, she can’t extract herself from this one.
As is noir’s way, while Song is on Jamie’s tail, Joe Tilley is found dead in his penthouse hotel suite. With two slashes to his wrists, but no knife anywhere to be found, murder becomes a distinct possibility. And Jamie, coked out in his room next to Joe’s, is the prime suspect. So Song steps up, at Daphne’s request, to find the real killer.
Entwined with this professional mystery is Song’s worry about Lori Lim. Once the subject or object of Song’s investigation in Follow Her Home, Lori is now Song’s housemate and substitute sister. The duo enjoy a peacefully interdependent home life until a violent older man takes interest in Lori. It’s in this relationship — and those with Daphne Freamon and even homicide cop Veronica Sanchez — that Song really sets herself apart from Marlowe. Whereas Marlowe didn’t let the femmes fatales get under his skin — that was left to feeble old men whom Marlowe nonetheless respected — Song’s weakness is the allure of real, complex relationships with women. In Follow Her Home, we learn that Lori reminds Song of her deceased sister, Iris, an innocent seduced by a high school teacher. Song’s mother, having moved to Texas, is basically incommunicado. Song is alone in the world, a fact she accepts but yearns to change:
I made the decision to latch Lori’s life to mine. It wasn’t a hard decision, and it wasn’t one made entirely from guilt. When Lori and I met, I was virtually alone, my father and sister dead, my mother living with family in Texas. I’d had a couple close friends to sustain my social needs — I lost them both within days of meeting Lori.
Her need to connect points to the key difference between Marlowe and Song: that she’s not hard-boiled. Song’s self-assessment — “I liked to think of myself as an honest person, someone who valued truth above comfort” — despite its hopeful prognosis, is simply not true. Marlowe likes the crime whirligig for its velocity; Song trudges the path, sometimes crookedly, to protect her surrogate sister and her client, who’s become as dear as a friend to the lonely sleuth.
Along with her vulnerability, there’s this indication that Song is tired of being an object, and that she’s grown tired of her idol’s ideas about women:
Marlowe had a line about women like her — he said he only knew four in his life who could throw back their heads laughing and still look beautiful. I remembered the line because it made me feel self-conscious about laughing for a while, back when I laughed often and gave a shit about such things.
It’s hard not to ascribe at least some of this weariness to the fact that Song is a woman. Fear for Song mounts as the plot complexifies; her body, like Lori’s and Daphne’s, is vulnerable to sexual offenses as well as murder. Her world is, after all, all too full of men willing and able to abuse her on account of it. This threat is menacingly present for almost all the women in Cha’s novel: Lori, of course, and Daphne too, who’s hiding something. The detective herself isn’t exempt: when Song drunkenly hooks up with a man one evening, her memory goes hazy, leaving her with “snatches of light, in pictures snipped from fevered, color-rich dreams.” Song wakes up groggy and feeling worse than hungover; she’s been roofied, giving this violence against women a personal edge. Wearyingly familiar, but still haunting, is the sense from those who partied with the drug-loving Joe Tilley that date-rape drugs like this are simply a matter of course in Hollywood. They’re not criminal items, but aids, just for fun — hence the assertion by a Hollywood hanger-on about Tilley, “He didn’t rape rape her.” Cha’s pointed portrait of a world that permits powerful men to do what they like to women is well-observed and nuanced, with layers that are revealed slowly but surely as Song discovers more about the nasty habits of celebrities.
Released now from her yoke as a willing disciple of Philip Marlowe, Juniper Song has found her niche — not only in the crannies of Koreatown, but also as a dogged detective driven by an almost maternal thirst to protect women and to thwart the men who might harm them. As a much-improved addition to Juniper Song’s adventures in detection, Beware Beware is proof that practice makes imperfect, and compellingly so.