The good cop?
A novel from Hong Kong rewrites the rules of detective fiction
Chan Ho-Kei, The Borrowed (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2017). Translated by Jeremy Tiang.
In a strange echo of its title, I borrowed and returned this book a few times before I read it. Moving backward through time, it’s six novellas in one giant doorstep of a book. All of the action is set in Hong Kong, and the stories are linked by two main characters: Kwan Chun-dok, a genius detective, and his protégé, Inspector Lok. Each of the six big sections is set in a different historical moment, moving backwards in time over the past fifty years. In the first, most recent, chapter, set in 2013, Kwan is an elderly man on life support; in the last chapter, set in 1967 amidst political unrest, we see how Kwan began his meteoric rise in the police. One of the great pleasures of the book is that each of the six chapters is a variation on a classic style of mystery story. There’s a locked-room mystery, a puzzle centering around mistaken identity, a series of ordeals masterminded by a shadowy criminal, and a race against a ticking time-bomb. Chan Ho-Kei writes with a love for the form that is both infectious and light-hearted.
And yet, this is not a light-hearted book, in the end. For one thing, it’s an intimate, detailed portrayal of Hong Kong’s institutions throughout a period of intense change. Control of Hong Kong passed from Britain to China in 1997, an event that forms a pivot for the novel’s historical narrative. Chan offers no easy political messages, nor does he dodge the painful aspects of either British or Chinese rule. The weight of British colonialism lies heavily on pre-1997 chapters: we see white British policemen and bureaucrats treated with undue deference while their Chinese colleagues are held back by racist assumptions. On the other hand, the main characters are also clear-sighted about the many shortcomings of Chinese rule—an issue that’s very much on my mind this week, in the wake of reports of a Hong Kong protester being beaten by Chinese protesters in Manchester, not far from where I live. It’s clear that The Borrowed is not a novel about colonial liberation, but instead about the transition from one oppressive regime to another—and how much stays the same under the surface, too.
The city itself—the very streets and buildings—changes, too, and yet remains the same. In an author’s afterword, Chan explains that similar locations recur throughout the novel, often rendered unrecognisable as a result of the massive development that has taken place in the city. So, for example, a scene that takes place in an old warehouse in one chapter takes place in the new development on that same site in another: a neat representation of the sense of layering that the book creates, connecting past and present. As a reader who’s never been to Hong Kong, I missed these details, but felt the sense of geographical intimacy nevertheless.
One of the reasons I love reading novels written by people who live far away is exactly that sense of place. I haven’t been to Hong Kong, but now, I feel as though I’ve been to Kwan Chun-dok’s Hong Kong; I can taste its air and remember its light, even though my visit was through literature, not reality. The technical term for this is verisimilitude: that sense of reality that a novel can create, so that readers no longer remember that they haven’t really experienced or known what’s been described.
My reluctance to read this novel—the reason I returned it and re-borrowed it—was also about the problem of verisimilitude. Put plainly, I read the blurb, and I felt a certain reluctance to read yet another detective novel making heroes out of the police. I know, when I read mysteries, that I’m not reading a factual account of how police departments work. I know that I’m enjoying a genre that celebrates the idea of the good detective, who might work within a compromised system but whose innate talent and moral compass allows them to rise above all that and seek justice. And I know that, like anyone else, I’m susceptible to the illusion of verisimilitude—the impression, completely ill-founded, that I know something about real policing from these novels. At its worst, this rosy verisimilitude might lead a reader to doubt, on no real evidence, factual accounts of abuse and violence in real-life policing.
At first blush, The Borrowed seems to follow the standard structure. We see violence, corruption, greed, and cynicism, but Inspector Kwan seems like an exception: a man who is willing to bend rules and consort with dodgy characters in pursuit of higher justice. In fact, Chan is up to something very different. As he explains in his afterword, he began writing the novel with a keen awareness of the real ethical dilemma posed for a detective-fiction author who is skeptical about the police. In their slow, careful way, the six novellas of this book are gradually revealed to be an extended meditation on this dilemma. The final twist is worthy of Agatha Christie; I’ll be thinking about this novel and how it re-writes the crime genre for a long time to come.
I read this book through the BorrowBox app via Manchester City Library. You can find out more about the book here.