I’ve been reviewing many mysteries and many Chinese books, but this, wow, is a one-of-a-kind experience, and I’m trying to say this in a neutral way. Let me just use a metaphor and a personal story.
I love food in general and I lived in China during several years, enough to make me knowledgeable enough in Chinese food. It’s one thing to enjoy Chinese food in a Western country, to have prawn crackers and sweet-and-sour pork and fried rice; it’s a whole other story to eat chicken feet and pungent bean-curd and ducks tongues in a family-style hole-in-the-wall restaurant in a Chinese suburb. It’s not a matter of earning Michelin stars or tasting better, because it really comes down to personal taste. But one is a comfortable, “universal” standard (which actually means that flavors have been toned-down to suit Western palates’ expectations), and the other is an authentic, potentially disturbing experience that one may or may not enjoy (read: digest). But if you want to know what people are really eating, it might be worthwhile to try the second one at least once.
Coming to mysteries, this book is a bit like the second menu, while Qiu Xiaolong’s mysteries, for example, would rather be in the first food category. Feng Hua’s might be the first translated homegrown serial killer novel. And it’s not (read: not in the least) abiding to our common Western standards. So it tastes weird. At times awkwardly naive (police investigations procedures are painstakingly fastidious, not to mention repetitive and rather prone to dead-ends), at times feeling very authentic (policemen unable to ask straightforward questions to a suspect because he is a Communist Party bigwig, dead-ends due to lack of coordination between local police forces and lack of computerized database — we’re a far cry from leaps of intuition of Qiu Xiaolong’s investigator and his countrywide connections enabling him to ask questions high and low, should the plot demand it).
The plot itself is pretty simple and tries to solve one murder case in a provincial town with practically no clue at all, uncovering as it goes a number of previous unresolved cases. The style of investigation sort of reminds me of Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, although they wrote it in the 1960s: Feng Hua’s investigator seems, in the same way, free of any influence by the pervasive standards of the American thrillers and the British classic mysteries (which is obviously a different story for those acclaimed Scandinavian best-sellers). The approach is totally fresh, which also means sometimes clumsy and candid.
Feng Hua also has a fresh take on the traditional duo of investigators: the somewhat gruff police inspector Pu Ke is helped here by a young woman, Mi Duo, who has medical (read: forensic) skills and a lot of time on her hands. Where a Western mystery would have a side plot including romance on the job, the Chinese notion of modern couples takes it upside-down. They meet through friends, but neither is really romantically-inclined, and it’s a chance circumstance that put them together into the investigation. Their relation is very distanced and unemotional for a Western reader, and lots of time is spent deciding if they’re not better off alone after all. As far as my personal experience goes, the dialogues and relations looked very authentic to me.
So if you’re looking for some exotic and authentic experience in the thriller department, get your passport ready! (except that you might have to wait until it gets translated to English…).