Originally published 15 October 2014, http://blog.roodo.com/wolfhsu/archives/32401822.html
Chan Ho-kei’s The Borrowed is full of surprises.
The Borrowed is a crime novel by Hong Kong writer Chan Ho-kei. It contains six novellas that can be read individually, but reading them together gives the flavor of a full-length work. The six stories share the same protagonist, and the book starts in 2013 before gradually rewinding back to 1967. The reverse chronology not only reveals how certain characteristics of the protagonist Kwan Chun-Dok came about, it also gives us a glimpse into some of the changes that occurred in Hong Kong under the British government rule and communist China.
When I read the first chapter, ‘The Truth Between Black and White’, I had yet to realize all that.
Chan mentioned in his Postscript that this story was written for Mystery Writers of Taiwan’s short story competition. The competition’s theme was ‘armchair detective’. This is a classic set-up for detective fiction, where the detective does not take part in the physical investigation, but steps in when associated characters have gathered all the information but are unable to work out the truth. The detective then uses their watertight logic to connect different threads and unveil the mystery.
A lot of writers don’t like writing to a pre-specified theme, it feels constricting. Yet, sometimes it is a great way to fire up the imagination, and this is where Chan dazzles. The story starts with Kwan Chun-Dok, a long-retired police detective, bedbound by illness. His ‘disciple’ Inspector Sonny Lok comes with information about a murder case and the people related to the case. But Kwan is grievously ill and has lost his ability to speak, he can only indicate ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a computer display as Lok explains the situation and questions the people he has brought along.
This set-up seems to have pushed ‘armchair detective’ to its extreme; the detective can’t move or ask any questions, he can only propel deductive reasoning forward by responding in the most basic dichotomy. But in the latter part of the story, readers find out that the whole premise has been a trap. They realize what it has all been about. If you knew about the competition parameter, you might think that the move goes against the principle of an ‘armchair detective’ story, but Chan changes course once more just before the finale. Not only does he reveal the shocking truth behind the trap, he also makes sure everything falls back into place, slap bang on theme.
Chan shows his familiarity with classic forms in detective fiction in the skillful way he incorporates and spins them in the stories that follow. In the second story, ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’, the retired Kwan is acting as a special consultant to the force when Sonny Lok, newly promoted to Inspector, receives a video of a murder. As the police look into the video and the crime, the story draws out the rivalry among triad members and comments on the complex relationship between Hong Kong’s entertainment industry and the criminal underworld. The third story ‘The Longest Day,’ is set on Kwan’s last day before his retirement, when his team are faced with two cases: a sulfuric acid attack in a busy street and the escape of a resourceful criminal seeking treatment at a hospital. Kwan is not supposed to do any work that day, but he decides to drag Lok along, who has just been promoted to Sergeant, to ‘look into’ the chemical attack, and resolves both cases speedily before he finishes his last full working day.
In the fourth story ‘The Scales of Themis,’ a gun battle breaks out as undercover police are about to arrest suspects. Looking into the shoot out, the story reveals unspoken tensions between police officers and within the power structure, as well as Hong Kong’s unique urban landscape. The fifth story, ‘Borrowed Place,’ may be about a kidnapping on the surface, but the detective work exposes disciplinary issues in the force and shows the daily life of the British in Hong Kong and how local Hongkongers view these ‘outsiders’. The sixth and final story, ‘Borrowed Time,’ is very intriguing: the narrative turns from the omnipresent third person to the subjective first person. It’s about an ‘I’ who does odd jobs for a living, stumbles across a bomb plot and helps a young beat cop numbered ‘4447’ to solve the case. It’s not just a nerve-wrecking search for a ticking clock, it also shows a side of Hong Kong we may have never heard about.
Most of these stories have the underlying mystery-solving structure of classic detective fiction, but they are not confined by the format of ‘Incident occurs investigation ensues detective joins in case is resolved.’ The main event that requires the protagonists’ deductive reasoning sometimes only occurs halfway through the plot. The time and place of each story also bear some significance to Hong Kong’s history. The first two are set after Hong Kong’s handover, sketching the changes in the triads, showbiz and the police force brought about by the new political reality. The third story occurs in 1997 before Hong Kong was handed back to China; Kwan’s retirement mirrors the era’s impending transformation and it paints public duty officers’ reactions to the sovereignty change. The fourth story has all the features of a police procedural: though the police are united by their uniform, they are individuals trying to get what they want and coping with their own emotions. The fifth story reflects the cultural and class conflicts between the British and Hongkongers. And the last story is against the backdrop of the 1967 Leftist Riots, when communist sympathizers rebelled against the British government, a period of uncertainty that embroiled many and left a legacy.
In other words, though the main body of Chan’s story has a tight hold of the thinking behind the classic whodunnit, its plots and settings ambitiously reveal the scope of the American hardboiled or Japanese ‘social school.’ The focus isn’t only on the cases; they reflect the zeitgeist as well as the complexity of human nature, while sketching out the sights of the city. This is a Hong Kong story written by a Hong Kong writer – the stories are rooted in the city’s environment, but the content entices readers who don’t live in Hong Kong to keep turning the pages.
At the same time, reading the six novellas together amounts to another point of interest.
Readers don’t find out the real identity of ‘I’ until the very end. This set-up not only links the six stories into a coherent novel, it also makes the protagonist Kwan Chun-Dok much more rounded. In classic detective fiction, the detective usually experiences relatively little personality change, he or she thinks calmly and finds a way through the maze of events and relationships. But Chan lets his reader into the key turning point that shapes Kwan’s personality, making this detective more than just a logical, unerring ‘thinking machine.’ He is a person that changes and grows with the events that go on around him. He is someone who carries through his resolutions.
When I read this book, Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’ was taking off. The fictional Kwan’s meditation on police identity versus reality triggered much personal reflection.
Looking at it purely as a reader, The Borrowed is a brilliant detective novel. But commenting on it more selfishly, this is a book that I think all writers in Chinese, myself included, should pay attention to and think carefully about. How to get close to readers, how to portray the characteristics of the societies that we know so well, how to use genre structure to tell a story but not become restricted by it, these are important issues we should think about.