Khanh Ho: A Vietnamese American Detective Novel: Unheard of?

A writer, critic, professor and world traveler confesses a terrible, trashy secret:  his love of detective fiction.  In an essay that yokes his experiences as a traveler with his newfound desire to write the first Vietnamese American detective fiction, Khanh Ho meditates on the role mystery novels played in forming friendships in every corner of the third world during a three year backpacking odyssey.  Touching, witty and funny–this essay asks the important question nobody has yet answered:  where is the middlebrow in our literary landscape?  You can follow Khanh’s blog at

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So I decided to start writing a mystery novel.  I’ve never worked in the mystery genre before.  I have always read detective fiction with a guilty pleasure, mainly because I spent so much time studying literature as if it were art.  But when I spent three years backpacking the world, after finishing my Ph.D. in English Lit, all I could get my grubby little hands on was detective fiction.  That’s when I caught the bug.

If you like to read, there are limited options on the road:  it’s either Detective Fiction or Chick Lit.  That was all you could get at the dusty hostel book exchange.  Guess what I read?  I read tons of Agatha Christie, Ross MacDonald, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Barbara Kingsolver.  You name it.

If it was sitting on the shelf, I picked it up and put another book down.  Sometimes I even filched one or two…just to make sure nobody would snatch it up.  I’m a bit compulsive.



I’d swap mystery novels with fellow backpackers and this was the best way to make a friendship with a Norwegian, a German, an Englishman.  They’ll invite you to drinks at the rooftop restaurant (almost always there’s a rooftop bar).  And voila, you’ve got a new best friend, for at least three days—someone to see the sights with,  someone who will turn you on to great new writers, someone who will teach you choice curse words in their mother tongue, someone who will stick up for you in a tight situation.  Like a bar fight on a rooftop.  An added plus:  if they just came from the opposite direction, these fellow lovers of detective fiction will tell you about which hotel has a hot shower.  And this is an important thing on the shoestring that gets you through India or South America or Cambodia.

In the course of my travels, detective novels came to mean more than just good plots.  They were about friendships, connection and resources.

Maybe a year into reading detective fiction, I started thinking there were things I would do differently.  I started noticing how there are a lot of wise guy white guys who do a lot of hard talking and all the cool solving.  Occasionally, there’s a black one.  Oh yeah, there’s a woman or two.  And this got me a bit disgruntled…because I’m Asian American–more precisely, Vietnamese American–and I didn’t really find one of my kind on the hostel shelves.

Then, when I got home and had unfettered access to bookstores, I really didn’t enjoy what other stuff I came across:  too ching-chong, opium den, sex slavery for me.  What about an Asian American detective who lives in a world that I know—who likes Japanese Anime and Giant Robot and boba?  Who actually has a job outside of Chinatown?  Who doesn’t have to talk in italics to show that he knows all sorts of exotic words and phrases that will somehow prove he’s authentic?

opium den


I finally realized that I could become a mystery writer, too.  After all, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.  Anyway, I thought, “How hard could it be?  Right?”

Well, I just started it.  And its damn hard.  I’m determined to finish, too.  And I’m going to put it up for sale on as an e-book at a recession proof price.  Why?  Well, times have changed.  You can travel with a kindle now.  You can download all sorts of junk.  You never have to rely on the randomness of hostel book shelves.  But still the pickings are slim.  So, I’m no longer on the road but I often feel the pull of the backpacker’s life and I want to send out a digital lifeline to a fellow traveler who is looking to find something—something different but familiar–that speaks to him…or her.

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  1. Rock on. The conventions of the detective novel are those of mass reading, revealing a shadow world, and of elite modernist concerns with point of view and the source of knowledge. In this light there have been many authors of mystery fiction who you could call Vietnamese, flourishing in the print worlds of France, Indochine and Viet Nam. There is a classic Self Reliance author whose name I am forgetting, and a Marcelino Truong comic. You are making me kick myself for not getting it all more available in English already. Best wishes –

  2. I love the classic detectives, from Philip Marlowe to Sam Spade and on up to Harry Bosch. But, yeah, they do seem to all be “wise guy white guys who do a lot of hard talking and all the cool solving.” We need some new blood and fresh perspective in the genre. Your detective is definitely going to find a receptive audience. Can’t wait to read it!

    • Well, thank you honorable Mister Thomas Hewlett! May a thousand virgins grace your bed! May your mother be reborn as a bodhisattva! May the rhinoceros never cross your path! I am glad you think that I will find a receptive audience…and that you put me in such a lineage. I do indeed offer a fresh perspective; you clearly are a perceptive man, my dear Thomas Hewlett!

  3. I see. Okay, then. Well, I suggest his middle name be “Kê Vinh” so that he can, at least, be a Vietnamese American detective in name.

  4. Interesting post on your blog. Thank you. I’m wondering, though, if the name Robert– magnificent and well-loved as it is–fails to communicate some uniqueness that a Vietnamese American detective should have. I admit I don’t know what those traits would be. Nevertheless, I imagine your gumshoe, sitting in a dark corner at a Pho place, sipping his cafe sua da, noticing his fedora has been stained by Sriracha hot sauce, exudes Vietnameseness because he’s wondering who dunnit, who dirtied the table with Sriracha that stained his inspirational hat. 😉 Wish you much luck in your endeavor.

    • awesomeness. god, why do i bother…when there’s genius out there already! robert has numerous reasons–mainly because the opening chapter has an extended passage that plays off the idea of “roberts rule of order”–so that’s kind of the reason why the name stuck: so I could make it work in this extremely flashy passage set piece that everyone whom I’ve shown to loves

      But come to think of it, I guess I could give him a truly, truly Vietnamese name that is the sign of the world of sriracha and pho and 2-for-the-price-of-one banh mi sandwiches: how about Kevin? 🙂

  5. I am so excited to read your book! I hope this Vietnamese American detective wears a fedora at some point 🙂

  6. Awesome! Breaking another barrier. Okay, but I suggest for your protagonist you should think Johnny Tri Nguyen meets Dat Phan meets Maggie Q meets Nguyen Ngoc Ngan meets Cathy Nguyen. The combination should give you a somewhat interesting Vietnamese American character. Imagine the fun challenge you’ll have with their traits in creating your protagonist. Ha! ha!

    • Wow. This is exactly what I need–crowd-sourcing. That way I’ll never have to think of another idea! Seriously: these are all interesting suggestions and I’ll totally take them into consideration, especially since all things are patterned after other things–be they books or characters or blogs! If you want to see the original source of my character (who has your name, by the way, Robert), check out my mystery blog. I just posted a companion piece explaining the origin of my character:

  7. Can’t wait to read it, sir. As a rabid fan of genre fiction, esp mystery, crime, and thriller over what seems at times the elitist literary stuff – I’m super proud of your surge in a contemporary Asian-Am detective fiction. I just started reading Jay Caspian King’s THE DEAD DO NOT IMPROVE – the protagonist is the suspect, and Ko-Am, taking place in hipster SF. Have u read it? If so, what you think?

    • I’m glad that there are rabid mystery fans out there. I think that the world is a better place for it. We all need to get our asses bitten!!!

      And what I love about the world of popular literature is that there are so many new things to do and write and explore: it’s mind-boggling. Jay Caspian Kang’s novel has been on my To Do List for a while now…but, so far, I’ve only read parts of it and, truth be told, I’ve loved the writing–wry and witty. Humorous.

      So, I’ll get to it one day soon…just as soon as I tear myself away from this mystery monkey on my back!

  8. This is cool. I love mysteries. I like things to happen in a story, and I would totally get into reading about a detective who reflects my reality. Make sure that there’s a lot of gore and running around!

    • Isn’t that the awesome thing about mysteries? The yarns and what-not? I guarantee you: there will be as much gratuitous violence and plot-twisting as possible. I hope that this reflects your reality…

    • That’s the great thing about writing your own detective: you can make him to order. So, yeah, this guy is super good looking and he often gets laid (isn’t that the reality for all of us vietnamese american dudes?). Think, Brandon Lee meets Russell Wong: devilish smile with fast-twitch-cut-up-ripped-and-shredded swagger. He’s also really smart and sensitive…kinda like a lot of guys I know…


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