Book review: Black Holes by He Jiahong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 November, 2014, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 November, 2014, 11:11pm

Black Holes
by He Jiahong

He Jiahong, a law professor at Beijing's Renmin University of China, used his real-life experiences while studying for his doctorate at Northwestern University, in the United States, as inspiration for the hero of his detective novels.

Handsome, US-educated, mainland lawyer Hong Jun made his debut in last year's well received Hanging Devils, focusing on the real-life rape and murder of a young woman. In Black Holes, set in 1995, he agrees to defend Xia Zhe, an ambitious young securities trader charged with fraud. Xia has suffered huge losses betting on the market, but claims he has been set up - possibly by a colleague and rival for the attentions of the company's beautiful clerk, Fang Qiong.

Hong, who has some of the pleasing swagger of tough-talking film-noir heroes - complete with a swooning secretary keen to become his partner in law and love - finds himself under pressure to drop the seemingly clear-cut case. As evidence against his client mounts, the lawyer's investigations uncover tangled links dating back to the Chinese revolution, which will also force him to confront his own past.

This crisply translated book features some pleasingly witty sparring between Hong and his secretary; the two characters fire the book. "Hear me out boss. Normally people with good looks have no power and people with power are usually downright ugly. I remember, when I was at school, my dad used to say, 'Just because you're pretty doesn't mean you shouldn't work hard'. He was comparing me with the students in my class … I used to tell him, 'It wasn't hard work that made them ugly'."

The main problem with the book is its stilted structure. He's first novel is based on a true story, but his own effort at creating a convincing mystery in Black Holes reveals his limitations as a storyteller. All the elements one would expect to find in a satisfying book are here - a crusading hero, wronged protagonist and underhand rivals - but somehow they fail to gel.

The promising early momentum soon fades as He's story becomes distracted with plot developments and the muddling story loses its focus. Too often, clumsy, drawn-out fragmented sections, introducing the backstories of the pivotal characters, stall the action just as things are gathering pace. Some of the protagonist's past relationships seem contrived, too.

Yet most perplexing is Hong's inexplicable disappearance from the central narrative for long, meandering periods, giving way to less appealing characters. His belated return ensures that the novel starts to regain some focus - but it still feels a bit of a letdown and a missed opportunity.