NTN: The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei

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Translated by Jeremy Tiang – It’s always good to read a real crime fiction epic, a novel that goes beyond the single story arc and ventures into something bigger, spanning across decades and hundreds of pages to really go deep into a social issue. Six-Four was one, and The Borrowed is another. These novels are particularly good because they transfer readers to a time and a place far from where they sit, examining a society in a far greater depth than normally possibly in crime fiction.

The Borrowed is a novel in six parts, six stories told in reverse chronological order, with each taking place at a defining point in the modern history of Hong Kong. As each story unfolds, the public’s sentiment towards Hong Kong’s police force shifts as the result of seismic events; the rise of the Occupy movement in 2013, the SARS epidemic of 2003, the handover in 1997, the ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) investigations in the 1970s, and the riots of 1967. These events are merely the backdrop though, the investigative skills of Kwan Chun-Dok take centre stage. Over the course of the novel-in-reverse, Kwan rises through the ranks of the Hong Kong Police from constable to superintendent. Playing the protégé Dr Watson to Kwan’s Sherlock Holmes is Sonny Lok, a promising young officer who Kwan takes under his wing, teaching him his unorthodox methods of investigation.

The first part occurs in 2013, with Superintendent Kwan on his death bed, unable to move or even speak. Lok brings a group of murder suspects together in the hospital room, and around the dying man they manage to solve a baffling murder in a country house – a locked room that Kwan never enters to investigate. This section was originally written as a standalone short story for a competition; the task to write a variation on the old armchair detective theme, which Chan chose to set in a hospital bed. The story outgrew the length requirement. Both in terms of plot and structure, this is the weakest of the six parts by far, so much so that is a struggle to continue past the first 20 pages. The opening reads like a gimmicky update of Golden Age themes with elements of science fiction, but doesn’t really nail either genre. Thankfully the ending of the first part turns this on its head, and the character of Sonny Lok shines through.

As each section steps back in time, the back story of the two characters is filled out. In 2003, as they investigate the death of a prominent young entertainer, Kwan is convincing Lok to step up into the role Kwan himself is about to vacate. In 1997, when Hong Kong is being handed back to the Chinese government, Kwan is attempting to retire, before being lured back into the force to investigate the escape of a prisoner he helped capture eight years earlier. In 1989, 20-year-old Sonny Lok is taking part in his first investigation, a failure he almost blames himself for before realising it’s all part of Kwan’s plan. In 1977, Kwan has recently returned from training in Britain, one of the few good cops in a corrupt force. Finally, in 1967, 19-year-old Kwan is without a job, torn between protesting on one hand and helping the Police foil an attempt at terrorism. Because of the unique structure, you know the characters’ future, but it isn’t until the final page that you really know their past.

Chan Ho-Kei has won numerous awards throughout Asia, and translator Jeremy Tiang has nine books and numerous short stories and poems under his belt, so it’s not immediately clear why this book fits in with New Talent November. It is, however, the author’s first work to appear in English, and addresses a chronic shortage of contemporary Chinese-language crime fiction. And, there probably isn’t a better introduction to Sinophone crime fiction – just make sure you stick it out past the first couple of dozen pages.

We’ve previously run a feature on the history of Chinese crime fiction going back to the 10th century. Click here!

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CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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