Hong Kong mystery writer Simon Chan is making crime pay - just about

Crime novelist's latest award-winning book is about the evolution of the police force and graft-busting in the city. He explains how his work in IT prepared him for his new career

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 2:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 2:00am

In the United States, there are the Edgar Awards; in Britain, it's the Dagger Awards given by the Crime Writers' Association. In the less developed world of Chinese-language mystery and crime fiction, perhaps the most prestigious is the biennial Soji Shimada Mystery Award established by Taiwanese publisher Crown Culture Corporation in 2009.

Hong Kong writer Simon Chan Ho-kei, who won the Shimada award in 2011, capped that achievement in January when he took one of three fiction prizes awarded by the Taipei International Book Exhibition for his latest novel, 13.67.

Not only did he receive a NT$100,000 (HK$24,860) cheque, Chan was the first Hongkonger to win a prize at the annual exhibition, the fourth largest book fair in the world.

13.67 spans 50 years and is a tale about a prominent local policeman that takes in watershed events in Hong Kong, including the leftist riots in the 1960s, the Sino-British negotiations, the 1997 handover and the Sars outbreak in 2003. It is likely to strike a chord with readers here.

A former computer programmer, 39-year-old Chan says he has been fascinated by tales of detectives since reading one of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries when he was in primary school. The cryptic clues and red herrings that writers weave into their stories appealed to his inner geek.

Having read hundreds of mystery novels, Chan decided to try writing his own in 2008. He had just quit his job as a programmer and began experimenting with a few stories while figuring out his options. Recognition came quickly: his entry, The Locked Room of Bluebeard , won a Mystery Writers of Taiwan award for short stories in 2009.

The visit to Taipei to accept his honour proved to be the turning point that led to Chan's new career as a mystery writer.

"It was the first time I realised that there was a community of enthusiasts made up of writers, readers, editors and reviewers. They come from all kinds of backgrounds, from doctors to zoologists and people in information technology. IT professionals and doctors make ideal mystery writers as their jobs are all about solving problems through reasoning," says Chan. "Originally, I planned to look for jobs with other IT companies. But after that trip, I started to think that I might be able to write detective stories for a living."

Chan's decision was vindicated as his writing drew more accolades, including his debut novel, The Man Who Sold the World, which won the Shimada award. A medal aside, the real prize from Crown is to have the winning novel published by the company and its international partners.

Which is how The Man Who Sold the World, his tale about a policeman who decides to reopen investigations into a murder, years after the case was closed, came to be released in simplified and traditional Chinese, as well as Japanese, Thai and Italian.

With 13.67, however, Chan says he did much more extensive research to establish a realistic setting for the novel. He read up about Hong Kong's police force and the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), and visited the police museum in The Peak to check out historical photos and exhibits.

Beyond the crime solving, 13.67 "is also a historical novel exploring the mission and rationale of the police force and its relationship with the graft-busters over the years".

Police officers were seen as licensed hooligans during the '60s, and corruption was a problem that went all the way to the senior ranks: chief superintendent Peter Godber and superintendents Cecil Cunningham and Benno Thompson were all jailed. At the peak of the anti-corruption drive in 1977, 1,000 officers stormed the ICAC headquarters in a bid to scare off the graft-busters.

"By the '80s, the force was modernised and had become one of the best in the world. But as the political environment changed after 2000, its morale and image took a plunge amid deep rifts in society," Chan says, pointing to last year's incident of an Occupy protester being beaten by police.

He was particularly upset by what was perceived as heavy-handed policing in 2011 during then vice-premier Li Keqiang's visit to Hong Kong. So when he began a new book project, Chan decided to write "a novel which shows the various images of police as ruffians and heroes and let readers make up their own minds".

Its plot, involving police brutality and clashes with demonstrators, turned out to be propitious: the Occupy protests were just coming to a boil when his literary agent Gray Tan presented the book at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October last year.

"European publishers are seldom interested in local books as they don't read Chinese. But the umbrella movement put the global spotlight on Hong Kong and its police. [My agent] sold the rights to my book to a French publisher on the spot," Chan recalls.

Even in Hong Kong, few bookstores were interested in distributing the novel when it was first released. That changed after 13.67 won a prize at the Taipei International Book Exhibition in February: a day after the announcement, his book became a promotion highlight at the Eslite bookstore in Causeway Bay, he says.

"I didn't even know my book was in the competition; my publisher submitted it without telling me."

It has sold several thousand copies so far, but you can't live off royalties
Simon Chan

It has since been translated into several languages including Korean, English, French, Italian and Dutch.

But as much as Chan enjoys glowing reviews and prizes, what he appreciates most about his book awards is the opportunity to join a community of kindred spirits - and to meet his idol Soji Shimada, when he accepted the award named after the influential mystery writer.

"His Murder in the Crooked Mansion and The Tokyo Zodiac Murders are classics of detective fiction," says Chan, describing the latter as a breakthrough in the genre. Although they talked through interpreters, he says, "I felt like I was meeting a Hollywood star".

Mysteries tend to appeal to male readers, who are more goal-oriented, Chan says. "Detective fiction often starts with the discovery of a corpse or something stolen and they read the whole book to find out why. Women are sentimental readers who just enjoy the process without any goals in mind."

Chan's research for his books ranges from history to medicine, and perhaps his most-used reference is More Forensics and Fiction: Crime Writers' Morbidly Curious Questions Expertly Answered by D.P. Lyle, a cardiologist and writer who has served as consultant on hit TV series such as House and Monk.

"When I am stuck for ideas, I will pick up the book to read questions like 'Will you die if you swallow a cutter?' and 'How long can a person survive if buried?'"

But ideas for his stories can come from anywhere: books, newspapers, TV; while walking the streets, on his travels.

"Hongkongers constantly have their heads bent over mobile phones, but actually there are many things worth observing when you are out. Every passenger on the MTR has his own story. With enough imagination, anything can be turned into a plot."

Now working on his ninth mystery novel, Chan might be considered an established writer. But despite income from book royalties and prize money from book contests, he says he would not have been able to write full-time if he had a family.

"I live with my mother and do not pay rent. With royalties of a typical HK$100 book set at between eight and 10 per cent, a 2,000-copy print will only bring in HK$20,000. Yet it takes two years to write a book like 13.67, which is in its third print run. It has sold several thousand copies so far, but you can't live off royalties if you have to support a family."

Writers such as Chan find it hard going in Hong Kong, where publishing is in decline and readers prefer romantic potboilers and photo books of so-called models. In the past, some Hong Kong companies would publish translated detective novels such as those by Jiro Akagawa, but hardly any do that now, Chan says.

"Readers might find mystery novels difficult, but it shouldn't be the case, as a good detective story should be easy to understand. Many Hongkongers are [intellectually] lazy and lack curiosity. After graduating from university, they just want to enter a big firm and make money. They do what people tell them and never ask why things happen. Like the recent lead water scandal, as long as it doesn't happen in their estate, they don't care at all."

As the only Hongkonger inducted into the Mystery Writers of Taiwan, Chan has made it his mission to promote reading and writing of the genre.

"As an adjudicator in Taiwanese and Japanese story-writing competitions, I read each entry and post comments about them online … [to] let budding writers know their works don't just end up in the dustbin, even though they may not win," he says.

"I want to encourage them to try more. There's nothing that gives you more satisfaction than writing a book. I get satisfaction multiple times from finishing the book, seeing it published, getting readers' feedback and winning a prize. What else can give you a big sense of satisfaction four times?"