The Asian arowana, or dragonfish, the creature that gives its title to U. of C. prof Vu Tran’s first novel, looks like a golden Chinese dragon and is supposed to bring good luck. But the book itself more closely resembles a hermit crab: a literary novel that borrows the snail shell of noir to give itself a form and structure. The soft underbelly is the story of Hong Thi Pham, a woman who, with her daughter, flees Vietnam by boat after the fall of Saigon and lands in a ghost-filled Malaysian internment camp. The hard shell is what happens more than 20 years later when she flees her violent gangster husband—who has a small sideline in the underground dragonfish trade—with a suitcase full of cash.

The two stories are held together by a red leather diary, written in Vietnamese, that falls into the possession of the book’s narrator, Robert Ruen, an American who was married to Hong for eight years and understood her so little he insisted upon calling her Suzy, a name he borrowed from his first girlfriend. Ruen’s also a cop, which gives him access to a gun and a badge, two of the essential props of noir fiction. Ruen’s cluelessness serves the story well, but the reveals and plot twists aren’t sharp enough to make you want to grab on to the book for dear life and keep reading late into the night. It’s Hong’s story that makes Dragonfish worth reading—that and the moody Vegas setting, punctuated, in fine noir style, with lots of luxuriant cigarette smoke.

Book launch Mon 8/3, 6 PM, Open Books, 651 W. Lake, 312-475-1355,, free.