A Person of Interest
Susan Choi's A Person of Interest begins the way we expect most murder mysteries to begin: with a bang. The explosion, in this case, is a mail bomb sent to the colleague and office neighbor of Lee, a mathematics professor at an anonymous Midwestern university. Choi's novel takes place in the late 1990s, an era when PlayStations were the pinnacle of video gaming and terrorism was not a part of the American zeitgeist.
Thus, in the parlance of those innocent times, the death of Professor Lee's colleague is considered a murder and the perpetrator of this act, a serial-killing Luddite nicknamed the Brain Bomber, a murderer. The mystery is pursued not by Homeland Security but by standard FBI agents--complete with Wonder Bread names such as Jim Morrison--who quickly consider the shell-shocked Professor Lee to be a key witness and, later, a suspect.
Rooted as it is in the recent past, A Person of Interest continually looks forward to contemporary America. The problem is, it never does so wholeheartedly. The plot hinges on Professor Lee as a person of interest in the case--not a suspect, as the novel's law enforcement officials constantly remind him--an idea that suggests the kind of racial profiling inherent to the war on terror. What makes Professor Lee a person of interest, however, has nothing to do with his Japanese race and everything to do with the fact that he withholds evidence. The fear he evokes in his colleagues and neighbors is less a result of xenophobia and more a reaction to Lee's social blunders--such as skipping out on his colleague's memorial service.
For a novel whose central villain is a shadowy explosives expert whose modus operandi is terrorizing the intellectual community into submission by killing its elite members, A Person of Interest is more interested in the procedural thrills and chills of a murder mystery than in saying anything worthwhile about our own time and place. Aside from tacking brief references to the Middle East and the loss of personal freedom in his book’s concluding pages, Choi shies away from placing these allusions where they should be: at the center of the work.
There's nothing wrong with a streamlined thriller. Those that tackle sociopolitical issues, however, should directly address these concerns instead of dodge them.