The Borrowed by Chan-Ho-Kei

Translated by Jeremy Tiang

Reviewed by Gill Davies

borrowedChan Ho-Kei lives in Hong Kong where he was born and raised. He has had a variety of jobs, has won awards for his first novel and for a short story collection, and The Borrowed is his second novel. It was published in Taiwan in 2014 and the film rights have been bought by the director Wong Kar-wai. The world-wide appetite for crime fiction is still growing and the popularity of ‘foreign’ crime writing has perhaps encouraged publishers to look beyond Scandinavia for their next big seller. I had high expectations of this novel from a short review I read and the publicity highlighting its Hong Kong setting. I really enjoyed the Japanese novels that I recently reviewed because they did not rely on some of the generic formulae of American and European crime fiction. The culture of the police, with their different values and expectations, and the unfamiliarity of the milieu made them strange and intriguing. So it seemed likely that this – my first Chinese crime novel – would also surprise me.

I confess I was hoping for something a bit more unusual – my first impression of The Borrowed was that it was a mixture of conventional, even rather old-fashioned, English crime writing with a bit of violent action thrown in. (I did revise this impression as I read more.) It’s a real mixture of sub-genres with elements of the police procedural, the action thriller, and puzzle-solving mystery, featuring a Sherlockian master-detective. Intriguingly, the chronology works back from the present day to the late 1960s, tracing episodes in the career of Inspector Kwan, a brilliant detective in the Golden Age manner, and implausibly moral and incorruptible. What redeemed it for me was the changing setting as the narrative tracked back through the history of Hong Kong from the handover to the Chinese back to political unrest and the attitudes in the colonial police force. In addition, Chan has a playful approach and surprises the reader with frequent twists and unexpected resolutions. The slightly odd mingling of a realistic setting with whodunnit and locked room conventions certainly kept me intrigued and reading on. And the author was very aware of what he was doing: in his afterword, he writes about starting to write a ‘classic detective novel’ and then discovering he was writing a ‘social realist novel’.

In fact, the six sections can be read almost as separate novellas. Section 1, ‘The Truth Between Black and White’ was for me the least successful (so, if you are also impatient with it, I recommend persevering) – in part, I think, because of its origins as a standalone story for a competition whose topic was ‘Armchair Detectives’. This trope is taken a very long way. The detective is in a hospital bed, rather than an armchair, comatose and communicating only with the help of a button and a computer attached to an electro-encephalogram that records his reactions to questions. He is thus able to solve a crime with the help of a younger detective and in the presence of the murder victim’s family and servants. It’s an old-fashioned detective format mixed with high-tech equipment and seems very contrived – although the twist at the end goes some way towards explaining the contrivance. In Section 2 we have gone back 10 years and moved to the format of the police procedural. We learn more about the two main characters – the incorruptible detective genius Kwan Chun-dok and his partner Sonny Lok – as they battle against gangs, triads and internal police politics and corruption. Section 3 is set in 1997 as Kwan’s retirement and the handover of Hong Kong are both imminent. The detective mentor and junior partner are familiar types (Sherlock and Watson, Regan and Carter, Morse and Lewis etc.). In this section and the next (set in 1989) we track back, seeing the development of their careers in parallel with some of the changes in Hong Kong society as well as in policing techniques. Section 5 in 1977 is the first to show the colonial power at work and some of the political ferment of the time. The final section set in 1967 is the strangest of all and has a quite unexpected twist that links right back to the first story.

One puzzle for me was the complete incorruptibility and extraordinary sleuthing powers of Inspector Kwan. He is a throwback to Golden Age detection and seems particularly strange since we have become so used to police protagonists in fiction being – at the very least – eccentric isolates or drunks. In most detective novels police work is dirty and the police themselves at best flawed if not corrupt or mendacious. But this novel’s hero is a paragon of goodness and investigative brilliance. He even has a 100% clear-up record, which perhaps suggests that Chan is not 100% serious. The characters and conventions that he deploys in the six stories suggest to me that he is writing with his tongue in his cheek. There is a lot here that was ‘borrowed’ and ultimately it was a playful and enjoyable read.

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Chan Ho-Kei, The Borrowed, translated by Jeremy Tiang (Head of Zeus: London, 2016). 978-1784971519, 490pp., hardback.

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