By Daniel Nieh
“Beijing Payback” is a propulsive first novel that aims to entertain. Victor Li, a college student whose father, Vincent, was recently killed in a home invasion, learns from the detective on the case that the murder might’ve been the work of an “experienced killer.”
Suspects abound. The most likely seems to be Rou Qiangjun, a man who has recently arrived in California to replace Vincent in running all four branches of Happy Year, a Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley.
Vincent came of age during the Cultural Revolution and entered into a blood brotherhood on the streets of Beijing. Now, the brotherhood is responsible for an expansive smuggling endeavor and the Happy Year restaurants serve as a cover for their United States operations. In a letter left for Victor, Vincent reveals that he argued with the brotherhood about Ice, the latest product they were planning to bring in from China. “If you are reading this letter, the worst has come to pass,” Vincent writes. “Do not mourn me as a victim.” Instead, he wants Victor to avenge him by returning to Beijing to find evidence of Ice and hand it over to a Western journalist there. Exposing the operation in the international press will embarrass the government, he says, and force them to step in and shut down the brotherhood’s shady dealings for good.
So Victor heads off to Beijing, aided by his father’s former protégé, Sun Jianshui, who it turns out is a lethal fixer. Despite the highly capable backup, things don’t go as Victor planned. Daniel Nieh packs his novel with action, taking many of his cues from movie plots: We open with a flash-forward; we follow Vincent and Sun as they navigate increasingly harrowing situations that we know are leading to a final boss lurking somewhere. But even if the book’s plot moves aren’t difficult to anticipate, the details that fill them in are highly enjoyable. Nieh clearly wants you to enjoy yourself, which makes it very easy to forgive the occasional lines of wooden dialogue and an overreliance on formula.
There are some interesting ideas about identity and privilege here. The money earned from the brotherhood’s illicit activities in Beijing is the reason Vincent was able to build an idyllic life for Victor and his sister in California. Victor grapples with the moral implications of this with the convincing clumsiness of a sheltered 20-something. Plus, Nieh is a Chinese-English translator and his experience in this arena is an important feature of the text. Victor is mourning his father, and is often reminded of Vincent’s advice — snippets of it appear throughout the novel in Chinese and serve to remind Victor of all that he has inherited culturally and emotionally, both for good and bad. And Victor Li — or Li Xiaozhou, as he is known in China — is perceived as an entirely different person in sleepy San Dimas than he is in Beijing’s underworld. In the lulls between high-octane fight scenes, Nieh uses the gaps in Victor’s fluency to lend realism to the experience of straddling these two worlds.
The second half of “Beijing Payback” rushes through a few final action scenes, then slows down for a clever plot twist and a brooding ending. And it sets up a sequel, one that I very much look forward to reading.