In her fourth novel, Your House Will Pay, Steph Cha effectively resets the parameters of crime fiction—if, indeed, we can use such a label to describe this book. There is a crime here, or (to be more accurate) two crimes: the first taking place in 1991, when a Korean American shop owner shoots and kills a Black teenager in her store in South Los Angeles, and the second coming nearly 30 years later when that same shop owner is gunned down in a Northridge parking lot. But the real crime at the center of this essential novel is that of race. “See, it don’t matter what you do if you’re black in America,” an activist declares early in the novel. “Someone can just come in and kill you with the full blessing of the law.”
Such a sentiment—or recognition—resonates throughout Your House Will Pay, which takes as an inspiration the real-life death of Latasha Harlins, who was shot on March 16, 1991, in South Los Angeles by convenience store owner Soon Ja Du. “The whole thing was caught on video,” Cha explains in an author’s note, “and Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. She received no jail time.” The case was a factor in the uprising that roiled the city in April 1992 after the not-guilty verdicts in the police beating of Rodney King.
Cha has done her research, although that’s just one measure of how Your House Will Pay succeeds. For a novel to work, after all, it must do so on its own terms, and Cha deftly evokes the lingering racial tensions of a city that has never fully reckoned with its history. To do this, she balances two families, one Black and one Korean American, intercutting their narratives of disconnection and loss. The point is that the killing has affected both—if not equally, then certainly together, and in bluntly existential terms. How to heal the wounds? If Cha’s novel has a message, it is that the damage is irreparable, that Los Angeles carries this as a kind of collective wound, an original sin.
“Los Angeles,” Cha writes, “this was supposed to be it. The end of the frontier, land of sunshine, promised land. Last stop for the immigrant, the refugee, the fugitive, the pioneer. It was Shawn’s home, where his mother and sister had lived and died. But he had left, and so had most of the people he knew. Chased out, priced out, native children living in exile. And he saw the fear and rancor here, in the ones who’d stayed. This city of good feeling, of tolerance and progress and loving thy neighbor, was also a city that shunned and starved and killed its own. No wonder, was it, that it huffed and heaved, ready to blow. Because the city was human, and humans could only take so much.”•