Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Review of The Borrowed by Chan Ho-Kei (2014, Chinese; 2017, Head of Zeus)

Kwan Chun-dok lies dying in a hospital, trapped in a coma. He can communicate only through a EEG headset that allows him to ‘say’ yes, no and to hover between the two. His former mentee Inspector Lok is trying to solve a baffling crime in which the head of a successful family has been killed in his own home. There are only five suspects, all present in the house at the time and Lok assembles them in Kwan’s hospital room, preceding to ask them questions. He also refers questions to Kwan. Through a series of yes/no answers, Kwan solves the crime, his famous deductive mind seeing what the others cannot, despite never visiting the murder site. This is the first of six novellas that make up The Borrowed. Each story is set at a critical time in Hong Kong’s history, with the final tale set in 1967. All the stories feature Kwan, the stories reversing his legendary career. 

While each tale is an intricately plotted police procedural, where the mystery is a difficult puzzle that has to be solved by Kwan (and takes an interesting form – locked-room, prisoner-dilemma, jail break, siege, kidnapping, terrorist conspiracy) they are also astute social and political commentaries about Hong Kong as it passes from British colony to the sphere of Chinese rule. Each story is fascinating in its own right, but collectively they add up to more than the sum of their parts, and there are also multiple social and geographical links between the people and places portrayed. And Kwan is an intriguing character, full of humanity and compassion, but ruthless in pursuing justice. One of the tales felt a little weaker than the others in terms of its resolution, but overall this is an engaging, intriguing and thought-provoking novel with excellent plotting, strong character development, and a good sense of place and historical context. Highly recommended.

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