Written by He Jiahong, translated by Emily Jones — We have an unusual little gem for you today: crime fiction set in the rapidly-changing China of the mid-1990s and written by an author who is one of China’s foremost authorities on criminal justice and a professor of law at Renmin University of China. Most crime fiction set in China has been written by authors who live abroad, so this book gives us a unique insight on what it is like to investigate murder and other crimes within the post-Maoist state system.
The financial difficulties that get things rolling chime with China’s current economic woes. Xia She is an ambitious, somewhat brash young securities trader, who has lost quite a bit of money on a recent transaction and stands accused of corporate fraud. It’s a very serious offence, particularly when the company he is trading for is state-owned. All might be well if his father could repay his debt, but the older man’s own timber company is struggling, following a disastrous failure to fulfill a contract with a hard-nosed American CEO of Chinese origin.
Xia She claims that he is being set up. So his parents hire the US-trained lawyer Hong Jun to take on his case, but Hong soon gets far more than he bargained for in a case of avarice, revenge and family secrets going as far back as the murky period of the Cultural Revolution. When Hong also discovers that he has personal links to the ruthless CEO who is threatening to ruin the Xia family, his loyalties are severely put to the test. It’s not long before fraud turns to murder. Meanwhile, an overly protective mother, envious colleagues, an inscrutable femme fatale and a benign but rather vague boss all complicate the matter in hand.
Hong Jun is an ethical character, who only takes on cases when he is convinced of the innocence of the defendant and the validity of the cause. He was educated abroad but has returned to his home country intent on setting up a new style of practice: helping ordinary citizens to defend their rights. This attitude is revolutionary enough for China, especially since the cases often have links to the past, which means the Chinese authorities may have to admit to some of some of their previous mistakes and corruption. Of course, setting the series 10 to 15 years ago is a shrewd move on the author’s part and defuses any possible tensions about criticism of the current government.
This is the second legal thriller to emerge from the pen of He Jiahong, featuring the lawyer-detective Hong Jun and his devoted assistant Song Jia, who is also gifted with an acute sense of observation and a sharp tongue. It is not essential to have read the first book in the series to enjoy this one, as the stories are quite distinct. ‘Thriller’ doesn’t feel like the right description for this book. Perhaps due to its Eastern origins, it does not follow the conventional rules of suspense. There are multiple long flashbacks, some of which don’t seem necessary, and it isn’t too hard to guess the twists ahead of time. The pace is somewhat slower than what Western readers are accustomed to, and the many unfamiliar Chinese names may be confusing at first. The dialogue also feels a little stilted at times but this could be down to difficulties of translation and idiom.
Despite these points the book is certainly an interesting and worthwhile read. It provides a fascinating perspective on a country and culture which seem to be changing at an incomprehensible speed.
For a little more on the heritage of crime fiction in China, read this fascinating introduction. Black Holes is available for Kindle now and in paperback 1 April.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars