Killer Nashville Book of the Day

Dragonfish by Vu Tran / Reviewed by G. Robert Frazier

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Vu Tran
Vu Tran
Credit: Chris Kirzeder

Dragonfish, like Gone Girl, is two interconnected stories in one – and both are thoroughly engrossing. Written by Vu Tran, the novel is part noir-crime thriller and part literary memoir.

At the heart of both stories is Suzy, a Vietnamese woman haunted by her past and her own inability to find true happiness with either of the men in her life. Her mood swings—from attentive and loving wife to sullen and mysterious stranger—baffle both men, Oakland police officer Robert Ruen and Vietnamese gangster Sonny Van Nguyen, neither of whom can let her go once she decides to leave them. Robert’s off-duty investigation takes him into the seamy warrens of casinos and gambling dens of Las Vegas, with Sonny’s sadistic son “Junior” shadowing his every move.

The story takes on a grim tone of mystery, lost love, and the slim hope of atonement for Robert, who is forever remorseful for having struck Suzy during one of their arguments. That tone is reflected further in Suzy’s own story, told in a collection of letters to her daughter, recounting her journey of discovery from a refugee camp in Malaysia after the fall of Saigon to her life in America. Tran, himself a Vietnamese refugee, easily captures the cultural anxiety of leaving home and trying to establish new roots in a strange land, lending a sense of authenticity to the story.

Robert’s story is told in a more traditional noir style, with sharp dialogue, violent action, and a dark atmosphere. The narrative moves swiftly as the mystery of Suzy’s disappearance deepens and the looming threat of Junior and his goons grows. Suzy’s story, by contrast, takes a more introspective, though still haunting, literary tone. While not as dramatic as Robert’s story, Suzy’s story is an emotional exploration of who she is, where she came from, and her place in the world.

Mystery-thriller readers may balk at the idea that a good portion of the book is told as memoir. But Tran successfully pulls off both stories thanks in part to his skill as a literary short story writer. And, certainly, the climax holds plenty of violence to make up for any detours along the way.

“At the end of the day, it’s still about writing great sentences and drawing convincing and compelling characters,” Tran explains. “I think one of the great virtues of genre narratives like the detective novel is that, when it’s written at its best, it offers a heightened version of reality that allows or forces its characters to reveal themselves in ways they normally would not.”

Tran’s fiction has previously appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, the Best American Mystery Stories, The Southern Review, Harvard Review and other publications. He has received honors from Glimmer Train Stories and the Michigan Quarterly Review. Dragonfish is a novel expanded from Tran’s short story “This Or Any Desert”, originally published in the Las Vegas Noir anthology (Akashic Books) and later included in the 2009 edition of Best American Mystery Stories.

G. Robert Frazier is a former journalist and editor, having worked at several newspapers in Middle Tennessee. He is a reader for the Nashville Film Festival’s annual screenwriting competition, serves on the La Vergne Library Board, and is an active member of the Nashville Writers Meetup and Tennessee Screenwriters Association. He is currently working on a mystery/thriller novel and a screenplay. You can locate him online at https://twitter.com/grfrazier23 and https://grfrazier.wordpress.com.

(If you have a book you would like featured, send an ARC for consideration. The Killer Nashville Book Reviews are coordinated by Clay Stafford with the assistance of Maria Giordano, Will Chessor, and credited guest reviewers. For more writer resources, visit us at www.KillerNashville.com and www.KillerNashvilleMagazine.com)

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