Vivien Chien Finds Mysteries To Solve In Northeast Ohio
Writer Vivien Chien’s latest book “Wonton Terror” (St. Martin’s Paperbacks) starts off with a bang. A food truck set up at Night Market in Cleveland’s Asiatown explodes, killing the owner of Wonton on Wheels.
Was it just an accident or did someone have it in for Ronnie Chow, the proprietor of the vehicle?
Lana Lee is working her family’s food truck, an off-shoot of their Ho-Lee Noodle House restaurant, and is also knocked over by the blast. As often happens with Lee, the main character in Chien’s “Noodle Shop Mysteries,” curiosity gets the better of her and she pokes around hoping to find out what happened and why.
“Wonton Terror” is the fourth in Chien’s mystery series set in Cleveland. Each of the books centers around Lee, a 27-year-old Asian-American, who, like Chien, comes from a mixed ethnic background. Lee hoped to escape the family business by becoming a high powered executive, but after going through a bad romantic breakup and quitting her job, she accumulates a mound of debt. With nowhere to turn, she returns to the family noodle shop in Asia Plaza, which she ends up running for her parents. In the first book in the series, “Death By Dumpling,” Lee finds herself trying to clear the restaurant’s name, when a long-time customer, who had a well- known shellfish allergy among the staff, dies after a delivery of shrimp dumplings from Ho-Lee. In each book, Lee solves a crime that involves someone she knows, usually from Cleveland’s Asian community.
Chien’s interest in writing began as a child. She tried her hand at writing “chick-lit” and horror, but a fell in love with mystery writing following a college course that focused on the genre.
[Vivien Chien/St. Martin's Paperbacks]
Chien specializes in “cozy mysteries,” which are a special sub-genre of mystery writing.
“They are less violent. All of the murder happens off the page. There’s no overt sex. The language is pretty clean,” Chien said.
Chien felt it was important to make Lee a person of mixed races.
“I wanted to do that because I felt that character was kind of lacking. It was lacking for me when I was growing up in the 1980s. I always had a hard time finding the mixed race character. When I started this series I thought ‘who do I want to make this person?’ I decided she would be the character that I felt I didn’t have when I was younger,” Chien said.
Setting the books in Cleveland helps shape the narrative.
“I feel it changes the way the characters act. There’s a different mentality for each living situation, whether it’s a suburb, big city or in the country. Setting it in the plaza gives me the advantage of making it an even smaller community. Everybody is in your business. If I had set it in a bigger city or solitary restaurant in Cleveland, you could get lost,” Chien said.
Given her familiarity with the city, especially the Asian community spots, Chien is able to rely on her memory of these places to set the scenes she creates. However, she did have to do some research to capture the milieu of a particular downtown spot.
“I had to do the most research at (Jack) Casino, which I write about in the second book ‘Dim Sum of all Fears.’ I wanted to make sure when I had Lana walking through the casino, I was talking about it right. I didn’t want to say the slot machines were right when you walked in if they weren’t. I wanted to make sure where the craps tables were. I wanted that to be accurate,” Chien said.
Chien has been pleasantly surprised at how many people both in Northeast Ohio and beyond have reached out to her about setting her books in Cleveland.
“I’ve had people who live in Arizona and Florida who said, ‘I haven’t been back to Cleveland in 25 years and I feel like I just went walking down Brookpark Road or I was in Fairview right with you.’ It gave me this prideful sense of bringing together from both here and elsewhere. I love the dynamic of having it set here,” Chien said.
[Vivien Chien, ideastream's Dan Polletta/ideastream]
Author Vivien Chien will be signing copies of “Wonton Terror” at the Nordonia Hills Library on Sept 24 at 6:30 p.m.