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15 January 2017

The Two Kinds of Mystery Writing

Just finished a book, The Borrowed by Chan Ho Kei, translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Tiang, which my head is raving about, but I may not be able to articulate into words on this blog.  No matter. The publisher has about six blurbs on the book, even managing a front cover rave by John Burdett (Bangkok 8), one of my favorite writers of a genre best called Southeast Asian police procedural amongst an exotically familiar criminal, political, and economically diverse society.

Burdett basically describes this book best: "It hands us the living history of Hong Kong through the gripping prism of crime and politics -- told backwards."  I also agree that it was "brilliantly executed." 

Another one who writes better than I is the author Chan himself, who upon request turned a mere note to editor into a thoughtful afterword.  Chan talks about two kinds of mystery writing, the classic and the social.  The classic is about mysteries and plots, clues and logical deduction.  The social kind of detective novel is
"more concerned with reflecting the state of society, focusing on character and situation.  [T]he flavour of one would easily overpower the other.  In order to solve (or avoid) this problem, I chose the structure of six stand-alone novellas, each fuelled by mysteries and clues, but all six fitting together to form a complete portrait of society.
That's right.  We first meet 2013 Superintendent Kwan Chan-dock in a coma on his deathbed, about to assist his protegee Inspector "Sonny" Lok with a case, made touchy by the wealth and influence held by the murder victim's family.  And then, it's like we've decided to cherrypick key points in Kwan's past career which happen to coincide with key points in Hong Kong's turbulent modern history as a British colony before, during and after being returned into the folds of Mainland China, currently Communist, so that everyone gets whipped around to meeting the young 1967 Kwan first making a name for himself as a "deductive powerhouse."  That these cases are actual mysteries and not simply background for sociological studies into that exotically familiar cultural stew satisfy those who pick this volume up looking for detective stories.  And this also helps in the learning of Hong Kong history and neighborhoods.  If you've never been, keep this in mind for Books on First's May 2017 Reading Challenge.

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