When history and mystery collide


When history and mystery collide

NATHAN TRANTRAAL unravels a debut novel teeming with secrets and conspiracies.


BEFORE Noam Chomsky became a renowned intellectual and authority on geopolitical conflict and US foreign policy, he was a preeminent figure in linguistics. His transition to political commentary may surprise those who first encountered him through his linguistics works, akin to the astonishment of realising your parents used to be young.

Amy Chua, a Yale Law School professor, evokes a similar sentiment. Known for her expertise in foreign policy, globalisation and ethnic conflict, Chua has penned several academic books, such as World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (2003) and Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance — and Why They Fall. Her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother achieved international acclaim and was translated into more than 30 languages. Switching to fiction with her murder mystery The Golden Gate, Chua makes what seems like a significant leap. But only until you look a little more closely.

The Golden Gate is a historical thriller set in 1940s California, revolving around a homicide detective investigating the assassination of a presidential candidate and its link to a decade-old tragedy. This novel blends elements of mystery, family drama and social commentary, offering a new perspective on America's history of bigotry and discrimination. In a way, The Golden Gate is just American history, particularly Asian-American history, filtered through a different lens.

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Historical fiction noir

The novel’s prologue begins with the deposition of Mrs Bainbridge, the matriarch whose granddaughters, Isabella, Cassie and Nicole, are central to a 1944 murder investigation. This work of historical fiction noir weaves its narrative between 1930 and 1944, delving into the complexities of the case and the lives of those involved.

In the prologue, Chua uses the deposition format as a literary technique, a method she continues to employ in the rest of the story. The narrative unfolds through witness testimonies, a structured yet revealing way to advance the plot and develop character insights. I appreciate literary inventiveness but it almost seems compulsory these days for writers to include a new form of structure. And it feels a tad gimmicky at this point.

The opening chapter of The Golden Gate sets a scene of innocence and luxury, with sisters Issy and Iris enjoying their Sundays at San Francisco's opulent Claremont Hotel. Their routine of socialising and playing hide and seek is dramatically disrupted one Sunday, setting the stage for a gripping murder mystery against a backdrop of wealth and tragedy.

Central to the narrative is Al Sullivan, who embodies the quintessential hard-boiled detective of crime fiction. He is tasked with solving the murder of Walter Wilkinson, a charismatic politician whose character draws loose inspiration from Wendell Willkie, the Republican challenger to Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1940 election.

Wilkinson's murder at the Claremont Hotel, where he lived with his family, becomes the thread that unravels a complex tapestry of secrets. Sullivan is engaging to read about but some might find his construction somewhat overly deliberate. He talks in the succinct, straightforward manner of a figure from a Raymond Chandler novel, with a deadpan delivery typical of a noir protagonist. His complexity is furthered by his identity as a mixed-race individual who presents as white. While this twist aims to add depth, it may come across as a bit too conveniently crafted within the story's context.

Secret societies

The investigation leads Sullivan through a labyrinth of Chinese secret societies, political machinations and the underbelly of San Francisco's society, weaving connections from a decade past to the tumultuous present and involving figures like China's first lady, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. Sullivan's pursuit of the truth not only propels the narrative but immerses him and his associates in a world of increasing danger.

Chua's writing, rich in historical detail and character depth, maintains suspense and educates readers about the sociopolitical landscape of the US leading up to World War 2. The story unfolds in a way that demands attentive reading, rewarding those who savour a complex, historically infused and fast-paced crime narrative.

The narrative style is designed to engage readers, positioning them as part witness, part co-investigator and part voyeur — a technique that resonates particularly well in an era fascinated with crime-solving. The Golden Gate is thus a tribute to the traditions of crime fiction as well as the contemporary true crime phenomenon.

Chua's work is an invitation to dive deep into a world where history and mystery collide, ensuring readers are not merely spectators but active participants in solving the crime.

Who, what, where and how much?

The Golden Gate by Amy Chua was published by Atlantic Books and costs R465 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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