Something I love about reading modern Chinese fiction in English now is that, compared to when I first started haunting bookshops, so much genre fiction is available. I have no hard evidence of this – perhaps one for a future deep dive – but browse in a large bookshop or on publishers’ or agents’ websites and it feels true. You can get spy thrillers (Mai Jia), horror (Cai Jun), historical fiction (Zhang Ling) and, of course, sci-fi (Liu Cixin). It seems to me a far cry from a few decades ago, when you might be able to pick up translations of prestige authors like Mo Yan, or one of any number of fiction or autofiction works about the Cultural Revolution but not much else, unlike what was available from other European countries or Japan. No doubt a greater familiarity with China, and a greater ability to access fiction through other channels, is bearing fruit in the bookshops too now.
One of the recent books that got me excited again about Chinese fiction was Zhou Haohui’s Death Notice, a crime thriller published in 2018 by Head of Zeus, translated by Zac Haluza, and which was one of the Sunday Times’s crime books of the year. It was gripping, pacey, exciting and fresh, with a twist ending that stayed with me and promised – quite explicitly – more. It came off the back of a huge Tencent web series, and the announcement of a Hong Kong feature film, which seems to be somewhat overdue now.
Well, more is now here in the sequel – the second of a trilogy – with the somewhat less enticing title Fate. We’re back with Captain Pei Tao in 2002 Chengdu in the aftermath of the murder spree of a vigilante who calls themselves Eumenides (a reference to the vengeful Greek Furies) which culminated in the airport killing of the powerful ‘Mayor’ Deng. Eumenides published death notices indicating his victims, their ‘crimes’ and their date of death, and is a great invention. This time we have a new Eumenides, trained to carry on the killings.
It’s a tangled web of a plot, full of double crossing, unmasking, surprise deaths and other twists, but Zhou keeps the narrative clear and pacey. Scenes open with highly precise and filmic locations and times (‘29 October, 8am, a conference room in Chengdu criminal police headquarters’) which remind me of the opening scene of Psycho (‘Phoenix Arizona, Friday December the Eleventh, Two Forty-Three pm’). The narrative is built around uncovering several mysteries – not just who is Eumenides, but unravelling a number of events that took place in the past and working out how they are related the current events. The shadow of the past – and its fatalistic imprint on the present – is always there. This is a murderer driven by vengeance, after all. But happily this doesn’t make it too talky – Zhou has mastered the art of the Hollywood set piece.
The plot mostly unfolds through a series of discrete contrivances at a distinct location or event (a football match, say), featuring distinctive new or familiar characters (a fruit seller, a blind violinist, a teacher); with high stakes, high drama and a splattering of shootings, car crashes and dismembering, even if it’s not immediately obvious how it fits in with the wider narrative. Zhou is fantastically and gruesomely inventive – the ‘body in the bag’ trope used in Fate is one of the (pleasingly) nastiest I’ve ever read. Zhou also maximises the crime fiction form: the set pieces rely heavily on mystery men doing mysterious things, so much of the action unfolds with ‘a man’ or ‘the stranger’ (‘From inside Room 2107 a man watched the stadium’). At its best, such as when Eumenides appears out of nowhere in a room on CCTV footage, there’s a real creepy horror edge to the writing. This is brilliantly creepy, grisly writing.
‘Teacher Wu! Teacher Wu!’ The girl began sobbing again. She picked up his severed hand from the floor and held it close to her chest.
Wu felt an emotion that was utterly unfamiliar to him, something he had never felt before. Pride.
The man nodded approvingly at him.
It’s not all on Zhou, of course – Haluza’s translation is one of those quietly effective translations you don’t notice. The dialogue is naturally hard-boiled, the descriptive language creative, and he keeps the pace up. It’s a no-nonsense translation that really works and builds on the strengths of the original. It’s also helpful that the focus in Death Notice is really on the crime, not the politics or bureaucracy which some other crime works have led on, which keeps it much tighter in translation. We also know that changes were made to the text for the English language version of Death Notice and I assume this is the same for Fate; I’d love to know more about what changes might have been made, but the effect leads me to think they were smart choices.
It also led me to think about what Zhou is saying with the Death Notice books, if anything. Ian Rankin advices that the crime writer needs to have something they want to say. Is the vengeance-seeking antagonist doing any more than probing disaffection and alienation in modern urban China? Probably not. But why is it set in 2002, not the present day? In general, and as an avid consumer of classic and modern Western crime fiction (and TV series) something struck me as unusual about Fate. I’ve gone back to a presentation I saw given by Grenadan crime writer Jacob Ross about the crime novel, which opens with Rankin’s advice.
Ross sets out plenty of other rules about crime fiction. Death Notice and Fate don’t seem to play by these rules. It shouldn’t really be a surprise: it might feel like ‘genre fiction’ but it’s coming from a different tradition to what most Western readers might expect from Morse, Rebus et al, and I don’t know to what extent (if at all) Zhou is directly influenced by them.
Take our ‘hero’: there isn’t a typical dual approach to his character, which is set out as a ‘rule’. The lead protagonist, Pei Tao, doesn’t have much of an empathetic connection. We know a bit about his past from Death Notice but there’s no great lost love or unattainable romantic interest; no deep emotional conflicts; no dark history; no special gift or skill; no clear differentiation or attitude to make him stand out; no obsession with opera or jazz or whatever curious hobby helps him solve the crime. He’s not trying to resolve some deep-seated personal issue while solving the Eumenides crime. There’s no inner life or growth to Pei Tao – he’s mostly just a good, solid copper (which is not a criticism).
And look at the structure: while Fate has the problem of being the middle book in a continuous trilogy, it still doesn’t follow a conventional Situation – Investigation – Resolution structure. While it does ultimately resolve, it feels more episodic and a little aimless at times (again, not a criticism). In fact, in Fate we take a whole detour into a locked-door fake Eumenides copycat murder, which is ingenious enough to warrant its own book rather than a subplot.
It’s atypical from a Western genre perspective, but it works just as well and succeeds in most of what it sets out to do. And just like Pei Tao doesn’t seem to resonate on another level, Fate works best when it’s just straight police action and grisly murders. The musing on ‘fate’ itself towards the end, which tries to bring all the strands together, is a bit unconvincing, as is some of the cod psychology (particularly an odd excursion into heavy metal lyrics which feels like none of the characters has ever listened to heavy metal). And given the pat and icky way Zhou tackles the one sex scene, where a character has cold and gratuitous sex with his secretary while thinking about the time he saw his mother naked (he then kills himself, but not because of the sex), I’m quite pleased there’s not much in the way of sex or a romantic subplot for Pei Tao. A final criticism is that while it’s set in Chengdu, there’s almost no sense of place. It could be set anywhere, unless a lot of crime fiction that is deeply rooted in location. But that’s easily explained – it’s only set in Chengdu in the English version, a deliberate change for the translation. It’s a shame, as the hard-boiled feel should work perfectly with a Sichuan-spiced noir tone.
But I enjoyed Fate as much as I enjoyed Death Notice– it’s fun, creative and nasty, which is just what I want from a bit of crime fiction, and I can’t wait for the next one.
Thank you to Head of Zeus and NetGalley for the ARC; ‘Fate’ is released in the UK on 10 December 2020