A Legal Thriller That Combines Genre Entertainment with Social Issues: Review of Freddy Fu-Jui Tang’s PORT OF LIES
By Sean Hsu ∥ Translated by Kevin Wang
Sep 21, 2022

During the decades between 1970 and 2000, the introduction of Japanese detective fiction through translated novels, manga, television dramas, and movies profoundly influenced Taiwanese creatives. Some who wrote literary fiction found inspiration in the social observations and realist techniques of Seichō Matsumoto, and applied them to their own native subject matter. Younger writers were deeply inspired by the induction-driven stories about master sleuths such as the manga series The Kindaichi Case Files and Detective Conan, as well new examples of classical detective fiction by Soji Shimada and Yukito Ayatsuji, whose mystery novels focus primarily on the mechanical aspects of crimes and the persona of the great detective. Since then, the continuous, systematic introduction of recent British, American, and European works have inspired creators to expand their narratives and subject matter, increasing the popular appeal of stories while deepening their potential for discussion. It is within this greater context that Freddy Fu-Jui Tang’s novel Port of Lies has risen to prominence, bolstered by its win at MirrorFiction’s second Million-Dollar Award.

The novel’s main character, Tung Pao-Chu, is a seasoned public defender of Amis ethnicity who has been working in the judicial system for many years and knows all the tricks of the trade. His superficial sloppiness belies a deeper level of clarity. To win the most favor for his clients, he is always able to strike his opponents with a precisely calibrated question while their guards are down. His latest task is to defend an Indonesian fisherman who killed one of Tung’s childhood friends, a decision that causes others from his Amis indigenous community to spurn him. The case, a murder of a family of three, is filled with treacherous unknowns. Does the convict, who cannot be understood due to a language barrier, have a mental health disorder, or is he refusing to disclose ulterior motives? The enormously complex and profitable offshore fishing industry seems indirectly to have caused the incident. Even the Minister of Justice and the President’s inner circle become involved in the investigation as political calculations in the face of an election and a controversial debate over the retention of the death penalty push them to intervene. Lien Chin-Ping, a recent graduate in alternative civilian service whose father is a senior Supreme Court justice assists Tung in his defense, while Leena, an Indonesian care worker commissioned to interpret for the defendant struggles with the question of how deeply she should be involved. In what should have been a simple criminal defense case, the characters, in their search for the truth and desire to uphold justice, find that the chips on the table may decide the fate of the whole country.

Port of Lies gains narrative power from the process of criminal litigation, which involves the search for criminal motives and arguments between prosecution and defense. British and American works may also depict a twelve-person jury (Taiwan does not have a jury system, though it is in the process of implementing a system of citizen judges). The novel can be categorized as a legal thriller, written with great conviction by Freddy Fu-Jui Tang, who has a legal background that includes five years of experience as a lawyer. Human rights issues that have taken center stage in Taiwan in recent years, including judicial reforms to abolish the death penalty and grant equal rights to indigenous people and foreign migrant workers. These issues are skillfully presented through the novel’s murder case, prompting readers to raise questions of their own. The differing positions between characters create fascinating dramatic tensions that also reflect the various views of the general public. Was the murder of the boat captain’s family premeditated or done in the spur of the moment? Why does the killer deliberately drown the helpless girl in a bucket of water? What role did the dodgy shipping company play? Does the involvement of high-ranking politicians suggest dark forces behind the scenes that cannot be exposed? The design of these various mysteries strikes a clever balance between entertainment value and socially relevant themes.

Another aspect of the novel’s charm probably derives from its author’s training in cinematic directing at the California Institute of the Arts, which he began after leaving his lawyer job. This gives the novel a smooth and lively tone without compromising credibility earned through the use of reliable sources and specialized knowledge. Freddy Fu-Jui Tang demonstrates an admirable storytelling ability that retains local Taiwanese characteristics while contributing to the international genre of crime fiction.