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From seemingly out of nowhere and with little advance fanfare comes a book you must read. It is titled DRAGONFISH and is the debut work of Vu Tran, who teaches creative writing to a very fortunate group of students at the University of Chicago. Reading it won’t necessarily make you a better writer, but it certainly is a sterling example of what you would want your finished product to look like. It will not be soon forgotten by anyone who, attracted to its haunting cover, picks it up and begins reading. Stopping is almost impossible.

Most of the primary narrative is told from the first-person viewpoint of Robert Ruen, a troubled Oakland, California police officer. Part of his distress is the result of the desertion of his wife, Suzy, two years prior to the book’s present (being, as far as I can tell, near the turn of this century) after eight years of marriage. Suzy --- whose given name is Hong --- is a Vietnamese refugee who is badly damaged, given to fits of depression, melancholy and occasional rage. During the course of DRAGONFISH, we learn why and how from the voice of Suzy herself. Although she doesn’t actually appear in the book, she is an ominous, sought-after presence throughout. As the narrative slips from the novel’s present to its near and distant past, we learn that Robert had previously discovered that Suzy, upon leaving him, had taken up with a Vietnamese restaurateur, smuggler and gambler named Sonny and was living in Las Vegas.

"Please set aside whatever you might be reading now and pick up this dark, imaginative and haunting tale that will stay with you long beyond its final words."

Robert had visited that city on a fool’s mission some five months prior to the time when the book begins. That journey comes back to haunt him when Sonny sends some dangerous emissaries to Oakland to summon him back to Las Vegas. The reason is that Suzy has now left Sonny; he wants her back and would like Robert to find her, blackmailing him into doing so. Robert questions Sonny’s motivations, and rightfully so, but has no choice but to go along with his wishes.

There is a problem, however. Everyone --- not just Sonny --- is lying to Robert, who happens to have secrets of his own. The sad truth is that no one knows as little as Robert. Even the reader knows more (though not much) as he is buffeted by revelations about his wife that predate their marriage. By the time the book has concluded, everything has changed for everyone in ways that radiate far outside the pages and cover.

DRAGONFISH transcends its crime novel genre; actually, it explodes out of it. It would not be inaccurate to describe it as a modern noir masterpiece, faintly reminiscent of Chinatown, Body Heat and Pulp Fiction, as well as a host of 1950s pulp novels. Still, the book doggedly maintains its own originality. I had no idea what was going to happen next (or what from the past would be revealed next) and why. Please set aside whatever you might be reading now and pick up this dark, imaginative and haunting tale that will stay with you long beyond its final words.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 21, 2015

by Vu Tran