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Deep Roots by Sung J Woo

Deep Roots is an entertaining soft-boiled PI story that follows on from Sung J Woo’s crime Skin Deep and features Korean-American detective Siobhan O’Brien. If the name and the ethnicity seem at odds, it’s because Siobhan was adopted by an Irish-Norwegian couple in Minnesota, as was her African-American brother, Sven.

O’Brien inherited a private investigation business from her deceased boss (whom she misses), and a former client suggested she contact billionaire Philip Ahn, who might benefit from her help. Ahn’s illustrious Korean lineage traces back to the late-16th century, or further. Woodford, his estate, on one of the San Juan Islands in the far northwest United States, near the Canadian border. He owns the whole island.

Ahn wants Siobhan to come to Woodford to perform a delicate task. Now over 80, Ahn has been married three times. These alliances have produced three daughters and one son, Duke, a college student. If something happens to Ahn, Duke, the youngest of his children, will take over the businesses, something it is immediately obvious the young man is unprepared to do, intellectually or temperamentally.

Ahn, his three wives, his daughters and their partners, along with two grandchildren, plus Duke, all live at Woodford together. If you’re familiar with the Zhan Yimou’s movie, Raise the Red Lantern, which inspired the author, you’ll be alert to the desperate rivalries and other difficulties that such enforced proximity can engender.

Siobhan’s principal contact in the family is Ahn’s daughter, Lady Mary. You won’t go far wrong if you keep in mind the Lady Mary of Downton Abbey – another source Woo says contributed to his early ideas. Both Marys are models of self-containment, quite in contrast to Mary Ahn’s half-sister Aphrodite, for instance.

The issue Ahn wants Siobhan to resolve is Duke’s identity. He makes the rather extraordinary statement that the boy ‘is not who he purports to be.’ If Duke were booted from the line of succession, though, which mother, and which daughter or grandchild would take his place? Thus, a lot is riding not only on what Siobhan discovers, but how she goes about discovering it.

Ahn’s fortune was made in computers and artificial intelligence, with the useful addition of training in psychology. It’s no surprise that the house is completely outfitted with sophisticated communications technologies, cameras, drones and a seemingly endless array of gadgets, making it kind of a nerd’s Disneyland. Siobhan’s assistant, a college-student named Beaker, is one of those nerds. He delights in Woodford’s technologies and in tweaking his boss about her technological clumsiness. You may find yourself thinking about issues of privacy and vulnerability in such a world, even though the atmosphere of this book is not excessively dark.

Siobhan can summon ‘SiobhanDrone’ to lead her to any remote corner of the estate as she goes about interviewing family members. SiobhanDrone will bring her anything she wants weighing under two pounds as well, and performs many other tasks. People in service are there to provide aid, too, and Siobhan has Alice to dress her in the clothing the estate custom-makes for her in its tailoring and dress-making shop. Not only are her new clothes much more appropriate for Woodford than the leggings and T-shirts she packed back in Minneapolis, the fit is extraordinary!

All this is quite over-the-top, but if you loosen your grip on reality just a bit, it’s a lot of fun! Woo’s excellent descriptions make clear what the technology is doing in enough detail that, if I didn’t believe in it a hundred percent, it was at least plausible. Maybe five years hence.

Told by Siobhan, the story depends for its success on how engaging she is as a character. I liked her a lot – her wit, her wits, her ability to say the wrong thing and move on, and her strong desire to do the right thing. Once Philip Ahn disappears and is presumed dead, her investigation has multibillion-dollar consequences for everyone in the family.

There’s a brief secondary plot involving her brother Sven and an unlucky business venture that isn’t really needed, and the setting of the climactic moments truly stretches the imagination, but on the whole, the characters are so nicely built out and act in ways so consistent with their personalities you will play right into Woo’s capable hands.

Also see Dirty Geese by Lou Gilmond or Imposter Syndrome by Kathy Wang.

Agora Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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