The One with Cohorts of Chinese Serial Killers

Gang XueYin, A Devil’s Mind (English Oct. 2016)

It is quite understandable that China, having imported and adapted lots of Western concepts, would do the same for books, especially thrillers that are highly readable and quickly consumed. That is not to say that China doesn’t produce vastly original books of its own, but just to explain why I was curious to read a serial killer thriller with Chinese characteristics. Let’s say that I started out of intercultural curiosity, and that it is the sole reason that I finished this book.

Long gone is the day where writers didn’t write crime stories because crime supposedly didn’t exist in the Chinese proletarian workers’ paradise. From the several titles that Amazon Crossing has translated, I picked one at random because none seemed particularly set in a recognizable place. In that case, the main action is set in “J city of S province in southern China”, which is plain weird and highly frustrating for people like me who love settings. But I can understand. When touching with sensitive topics, Chinese writers protect themselves by making it crystal clear that it is fiction and that they don’t talk about any real bad, deviant, corrupt person.

The novel centers on Han Yin, a criminal profiler teaching within the Department of Criminal psychology at a police academy in northern China, but who, as the book opens, is asked to come and help the police team in J city. The local police has a dismembered victim that uncannily resembles a cold case of 1996: they fear that they might have a serial killer on the loose, and as the police takes a lot of flack from the public they request the analysis and assistance from professor Han Yin.

Now we all know that profilers in classic American serial killer novels are supremely intelligent and perceptive, but Han Yin is something else. Besides being handsome and charming, this guy only needs to look at a file and ask two questions before knowing who is lying and who is telling the truth. After visiting the crime scene, he often has a complete profile of the killer with age, occupation, childhood trauma, marital status, etc. You would say that with so much information it’s a shame the police isn’t capable to arrest the guy on the spot! Well, often enough they actually do! Beyond the case of the two dismembered victims, the book is littered with victims, gruesome crimes, and successful investigations. Wherever Han Yin goes, he finds a serial killer. I couldn’t decide if he was a clairvoyant or a walking disaster.

People who read this book but have never been to China will think that the country is most unsafe, but this rather over-the-top succession of crimes and resolutions is in my opinion the result of a faulty structure. The novel desperately needs some padding and some pacing, but since the author can’t put in any realist description of locations, any deep criticism of social problems (serial killers are ideal in that respect, they’re deviant and pervert due to their unique individual evil nature, not due to some wider issue), any deep introspection, then he fills the void with corpses. It becomes mechanical, and a bit ridiculous, if it weren’t so gruesome.

In short I do find the book terrible, but so terrible it becomes entertaining, at a meta level. By reading in between lines you can say that the book only confirms that lives of migrant workers are cheap and that if they disappear, nobody much cares, but that’s not really in the book. I can’t say I recommend it, but I don’t regret having read it.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for a honest review.

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