Book review: The Borrowed – Hong Kong crime novel’s six episodes tell a compelling story about city’s history
Simon Chan’s detective Kwan Chun-dok solves six murders against the backdrop of key events in Hong Kong’s recent history, from the 1967 riots to the handover and beyond
by Chan Ho-Kei (translated by Jeremy Tiang)
Kwan Chun-dok is “the genius detective… the man who never forgets a place, and can identify a suspect just from the way he walks”. And even in a coma, in what might be his last day of life, Kwan, known as the “Eye of Heaven”, is going to solve one final murder.
Hong Kong crime writer Simon Chan Ho-kei’s The Borrowed spans Kwan’s 50-year career with the Hong Kong Police Force. Told in six distinct novellas in reverse chronological order, the book begins in 2013 with the murder of a Hong Kong billionaire, before moving back in time to significant years in the city’s history: the handover in 1997, the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, the 1977 conflict between the Hong Kong Police and the Independent Commission Against Corruption, and, finally – or is this really the start? – the 1967 leftist riots.
Chan won the Mystery Writers of Taiwan Award for his short stories, while his 2011 debut The Man Who Sold the World won the Soji Shimada Mystery Award. The Borrowed was published as 13.67 in Chinese in 2015; the English edition arrives via a translation by Jeremy Tiang.
His Kwan is a legend among Hong Kong police and his ability to interpret clues and delve into the psychology behind criminal masterminds lead him to achieve a “100 per cent success rate”. He is the classic cerebral detective – able to spot even the slightest non-clue and yet sensitive to the human emotions that drive crime in the first place.
It’s not often that English readers have the opportunity to take a look at Hong Kong from a truly local point of view. Gone are the expats in Wan Chai typical of English-language Hong Kong noir and in their place are some wonderful details that perhaps would be missed by less local observers.
One of the suspects in Kwan and assistant Sonny Lok’s final case, for example, compares the billionaire’s family dramas to “some crappy eight o’clock soap”; characters ride a minibus home; an apartment described as being about 400 square feet is said to be “plenty of space for a bachelor”. The plainness of language also works when describing Hong Kong’s underground. “It was as Ah Gut said: Yam Tak-ngok was very patient, for a Triad leader.”
There’s a richness to Chan’s descriptions of Hong Kong and it’s clear he is also looking at the social situation as as much as he is trying to write a crime novel. For example, he writes: “Mong Kok was dazzling as always. The multicoloured neon lights, glittering shop windows, throngs of pedestrians – as if the city knew no night. This bustling scene was a microcosm of Hong Kong, a city that relied on finance and consumption for survival, though these pillars were not as sturdy as people supposed.”
While each novella reads like a self-contained detective story, Chan is also trying to paint a bigger picture, with the story behind the story slowly revealed as the reader is taken back in time. He succeeds; with each subsequent novella, the reader understands how the past has influenced present decisions – for better or worse.
Occasionally, however, Chan has a tendency to explain his characters’ biographical details as though he was writing an executive summary. For example: “Sonny Lok had graduated from the Police Academy aged seventeen, and was now twice that age. He was fairly bright and enthusiastic, but his luck wasn’t good – and his misfortunes, coupled with his introverted personality, meant his personal file was filled with criticism. In the Hong Kong Police Force, promotion is earned not just by passing a test but, more importantly, by having a clean record. Hence Lok was overjoyed to receive his probationary inspectorship in 1999.”
Such passages have an unfortunate tendency to break the flow, especially when Chan works hard to establish pace and suspense in the unravelling of six separate crimes.
In an afterword, the author explains what he set out to achieve, writing that “Hong Kong today is in just as strange a state as in 1967.” At least this reader sensed that feeling; on more than one occasion, I found myself muttering plus ça change.
Chan’s afterword also explains how the interwoven novellas helped him solve the problem of writing a detective story that fell into both the classic and social detective genres. “The idea,” Chan writes, “was to create a book in which every part felt like a classic detective story but looking at the big picture, you’d see it was actually a social realist novel.”
Perhaps, then, there is even more reason to be distressed at the disregard for women Chan sometimes shows. In the case of the murdered billionaire, there is an offhand remark about rape and in another case a suspect in an interrogation remarks: “Women are like horses, you have to break them in before use.” The officers’ sole reaction is to “thank their lucky stars” that their female colleague was not present, or “she’d have started yelling at the triad boss for being a chauvinist pig”.
Chan might argue that this is simply characterisation, but while he has eschewed many of the clichés and sorry tropes that so many expat novelists use when writing Hong Kong noir, in opting to continue this convention he detracts a little from his social realist message.
Hong Kong literature is usually meant as literature in English, only because so little of local Chinese fiction is translated into English. The Borrowed is a rare chance for English-languages readers to see Hong Kong from the perspective of the 92 per cent.