The strained Los Angeles landscape in Steph Cha’s crime thriller “Your House Will Pay” is immediately recognizable to anyone who lived in the city during the traumatic period surrounding the 1992 riots.
A native Angeleno, Cha writes a taut, fictionalized account of the real-life 1991 South Los Angeles slaying of Latasha Harlins. The 15-year-old was shot by a Korean convenience store owner just two weeks after the police beating of motorist Rodney King. The store owner was subsequently sentenced to probation and a fine.
In Cha’s Los Angeles, it’s the summer of 2019 and racial tensions are at their zenith since the ’92 rioting. This time, a police shooting involving a black teenager named Alfonso Curiel has inflamed simmering anger. Protests erupt throughout the city.
Against this backdrop, the destinies of two families — one African American, the other Korean American — collide in a tale of a city roiled by racism, violence and social injustice.
“Your House Will Pay” is a dramatic page-turner from Cha, a Korean American novelist who has written three previous novels — “Follow Her Home,” “Beware Beware” and “Dead Soon Enough” — featuring Los Angeles sleuth Juniper Song.
Her new thriller introduces Shawn Matthews, a black ex-convict living in Palmdale, who is still traumatized by the shooting death of his teenage sister, Ava, decades earlier. In a tragedy inspired by the Harlins case, Ava was killed by an immigrant Korean clerk who claimed the girl was stealing a drink from her store. The woman was tried, received no jail time and relocated to another part of the city, changing her name to start a new life.
The book’s other protagonist is Grace Park, a young second-generation Korean woman who works at her family’s pharmacy in the San Fernando Valley. She lives a sheltered life at home with her parents, unaware of her family’s secrets. Her placid life is soon shattered when she witnesses an ambush shooting.
The book’s core action revolves around Grace, who, with the help of her older sister, Miriam, comes to terms with her family’s role in the ambush shooting, while Shawn confronts his long-simmering rage over his own sister’s death. The two families’ paths intersect during the citywide drama surrounding the killing of teenager Alfonso Curiel.
In an author’s note, Cha acknowledges that Shawn Matthew’s aunt, Sheila Holloway, is based on a real-life counterpart: Latasha’s aunt, Denise Harlins, who became an activist after her niece’s death.
At its core, “Your House Will Pay” is a deep dive into Los Angeles’ racial underbelly and tensions. It’s a timely book that showcases two cultures and two families forced to confront injustice, enduring anger and profound loss. Cha deftly shows how flesh-and-blood people struggle in the shadow of outsized cultural dramas and headlines that can define a city.
With no simple, cauterized answers or endings, the novel’s portrayal of continued violence suggests racial understanding is still limited in Los Angeles, nearly three decades after Harlins’ death.
We’re left to contemplate questions posed by Matthews: “(In ’92,) he watched his city go up in flames, and under the sadness and rage, the exhilaration of rampage, he recognized the sparkle of hope. Rebirth — that was the promise of destruction. The olive branch, the rainbow, the good men spared to rebuild the earth.
“But where was the new city? And who were the good men?”
It appears Cha wants readers to investigate and decide for themselves.
Ecco: 320 pages, $26.99
Kinosian is a Southern California journalist and author and a longtime Times contributor.