California scheming in Steph Cha’s fantastic new crime novel

A murder in Los Angeles kickstarts a chain of events as sprawling as the city in Your House Will Pay, while Ausma Zehanat Khan examines the aftermath of a mass shooting in A Deadly Divide

Ian Rankin once said that if you want to know what a particular society is really like, you should read their crime fiction. There is truth in that – crime fiction seems particularly good at getting under the skin of a society and exposing the trouble bubbling underneath.

And so it is with this week’s two books. First up is Your House Will Pay, the fourth novel by American author and journalist Steph Cha. The book is set in Los Angeles and switches between the present day and the early Nineties, highlighting the racial tension that has pervaded the city both then and now.

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The story is told through two central characters – Grace Park, a young Korean-American woman working in her parents’ pharmacy, and Shawn Matthews, an African-American who has been helping out with his extended family while his cousin Ray has been in prison.

At the start of the book Ray is released, causing tension in the Matthews household, while Grace has a fractious relationship with both her parents and her sister. A shooting in a car park sets these two families on a collision course, and uncovers secrets dating back almost three decades to the infamous LA riots of the time.

Cha’s writing is full of subtlety and nuance, and the two-handed narrative is a great device for upending reader expectation. The morality of the situation and the characters within it are malleable, while the author expertly depicts real-life decisions and their fateful repercussions.

While this is ostensibly a crime novel and there is a crime to be solved, Your House Will Pay is more concerned with looking at the wider picture, the ways in which crimes and conflict can impact on both the victims and the perpetrators. Added to this, Cha’s depiction of Los Angeles both now and in the past is a visceral delight, and the sprawling mess of the city is as much a character in her story as a backdrop. Fantastic stuff.

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And so to Canada next with Ausma Zehanat Khan’s A Deadly Divide. The author is a human rights and immigration lawyer as well as a novelist, and this is her fifth book in a perceptive and heartfelt series featuring detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty from Canada’s Community Policing Unit.

The story opens in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting at a mosque in a small Quebec town, and Khattak and Getty are tasked with trying to prevent local tensions escalating into something much worse. Of course Canada has a reputation as a moderate and inclusive society, but Khan’s depiction here of small-town resentments and bigotry really looks behind that façade.

As the police follow leads and the media goes to town on the story, Khattak and Getty find themselves immersed in conflict and trauma, and Khan does a great job of juggling a complex plot and depicting all her characters with clarity and honesty.

Interspersed with the action are passages from online forums and transcripts of phone-in radio shows, conversations that highlight the kind of right-wing extremism and racism that seems so entrenched in certain sections of modern western societies.

Khan has used her experience as a lawyer to create a compelling story that pulls no punches, one that exposes an uncomfortable truth about the state of the world we live in.

Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha (Faber, £12.99)

A Deadly Divide by Zehanat Khan (No Exit, £8.99)