World Crime Atlas: Hong Kong

EAST MEETS WEST: "Hong Kong always changes, murder stays the same."
EAST MEETS WEST: “Hong Kong always changes, murder stays the same.”

The Borrowed, by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang.

Plot: Hong Kong’s greatest detective is dying. His partner comes to his deathbed to seek help from his mentor with one final case. Then we move backwards through six different but interlocking cases.

When: 1967 to 2013.

The detectives: Inspector Kwan Chun-dok and Detective Sonny Lok.

Sense of Place: The novel (really a series of linked but separate novellas) covers 50 years of great social change. The question was whether we would get a sense of place for all five decades.

The answer is mixed. As the author explains in his Afterword, he set out to write a classic crime story, relying on mysteries and plots, but changed direction towards a novel about the state of society, focussing on character and situation.

That’s a difficult mix to get right, and a lot of intricate (and for this reader, sometimes literally incredible) plotting remains. At times, his inspired deduction makes Inspector Kwan resemble an Asian Sherlock Holmes on steroids, or a Chinese Hercule Poirot, pulling together overlooked evidence to solve baffling crimes like a magician pulling rabbits from his hat.

Each novella is based in a critical year or decade in Hong Kong’s recent history. Each story has a wealth of detail about where exactly the action occurs. Slowly a web of interconnected locations emerges, though not always with much physical description of what it actually looks like.

DAZZLING: but behind the bright lights of Mong Kok lurks organised crime
DAZZLING: but behind the bright lights of Mong Kok lurks organised crime

One exception is the Mong Kok market, in the second story which is set in 2003: “Mong Kok was dazzling as always. The multicoloured neon lights, glittering shop windows, throngs of pedestrians – as if the city knew no night. This bustling scene was a microcosm of Hong Kong, a city that relied on finance and consumption.” It’s a superficially attractive scene, but “Mong Kok was like an engine that could not stop running, fuelled by cash day and night, and when the legal sources of this fuel ran dry, dirty money came in to fill the tank.” This is a place of Triad organised crime gangs, and lots of drugs.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD: the Hong Kong Garrison of the People's Liberation Army applaud at a farewell ceremony during the 1997 handover of sovereignty.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD: the Hong Kong Garrison of the People’s Liberation Army applaud at a farewell ceremony during the 1997 handover of sovereignty.

The stories spool back in time, through 1997 -the transfer of sovereignty from Britain to China – to the 1980s and 70s, decades of change and growing prosperity as Hong Kong  reinvented itself as the financial powerhouse of Asia.

WESTERN INFLUENCES: contestants line up in the 1977 Miss Hong Kong Pageant
WESTERN INFLUENCES: contestants line up in the 1977 Miss Hong Kong Pageant

The author has an acute eye for the way political and cultural change fashioned the lives of the British and Chinese residents; “the colonials slowly turning local, while the colonised picked up the lifestyles and cultures of the incomers.”

TROUBLE ON THE STREETS: Hong Kong Police ready to confront protestors during the 1967 Leftist Riots
TROUBLE ON THE STREETS: Hong Kong Police ready to confront protestors during the 1967 Leftist Riots

The final novella – Borrowed Time – takes us all the way back to the Leftist Riots of 1967. A time of political turmoil as agitators, bankrolled by the communist Chinese state on the other side of the border, sought to ferment revolution and force the British out.

Retired Bloke Verdict: While this isn’t the perfect choice of book for this project, it still offers an overview of a part of the world that underwent enormous political and cultural change in the second half of the 20th Century.

World Crime Atlas: Chile

PROTEST MARCH: workers demonstrate in support of President Allende
PROTEST MARCH: workers demonstrating in support of President Allende in the days leading up to the military coup of 1973 in Chile

The Shadow Of What We Were, by Luis Sepulveda, translated by Howard Curtis. (Europa Editions, 2011)

Plot: Three ageing revolutionaries wait in a city warehouse for a meeting with an anarchist who will lead them on one, final act of defiance. But a twist of fate means the day will turn out very differently from what they had expected.

Where and when: One rainy day in Santiago.

The detectives: Inspector Manuel Crespo, a man who “liked to take things calmly. That was his only method, the only way not to be overwhelmed by imponderables” and his female assistant, Detective Adela Bobadilla, “proud to be part of the first generation of police officers with clean hands, those who were not even born yet in 1973, or were too young to be torturers or the allies of drug traffickers.”

Sense of Place: The above description of Detective Bobadilla sets the scene. Nobody is murdered in this crime novel, and yet this is a book filled with deaths. Santiago is a city of ghosts – the thousands of militant supporters of President Salvador Allende who ‘disappeared’ after the military coup of September 11, 1973, led by General (and soon-to-be self-elected President) Augusto Pinochet: “Their youth had been scattered in hundreds of places, burned by electric prods during interrogations, buried in secret graves that were slowly being discovered, in years in prison, in strange rooms in even stranger countries.”  Sepulveda, who was imprisoned by the Pinochet regime for political activism, is not blind to the doctrinaire absurdities of the Leftist factions – Marxist, Maoist, Hoxhan, Anarchist, Socialist, Workers Revolutionary – that competed and plotted to impose their particular narrow ideology in Allende’s Chile. But, after the coup, the same fate awaits them all: “the military prison at Calle do Londres, the concentration camp at Puchuncavi.” Even three decades on, Santiago remains “a hostile city filled with the scars of what had once been,” peopled by men and women who are nothing more than a shadow of what they were, flitting between the bright lights of “the prosperous country of the victors.” 

Retired Bloke Verdict: This is a very unusual crime novel; there is very little action, and a lot of conversation about the past. I found it both absorbing and discomforting.

Where Next? Hong Kong: The Borrowed, by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang.

World Crime Atlas: Canada

The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny

Plot: A brutal death throws the door of a monastery, hidden deep in a forested wilderness, open to the world. Who among the two dozen monks has become an angel of death?

Where: Quebec.

The Detectives: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Sûreté du Québec – “a substantial man, though not heavy;” assisted by Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir.

Sense of Place: Almost all of the story is set within the walls of the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups (St Gilbert Among the Wolves), a place “as far from civilisation as (the monks) could get.”

Our first glimpse inside the monastery is of a corridor filled with rainbows and prisms of light, “the colour of joy.”

But we soon discover that there is something very wrong at its heart: “A place of distortion and even deprivation. Of great silence and greater darkness,” where “the natural world was locked out.”

The dual nature of the monastery is captured in a later passage: “Was this place . . .a golden moment? Between two worlds. . . Between the mortal world, and Heaven. Or Hell. There was here.”

The book steadily builds an impression of seclusion and privacy. This is a place, and a way of life, enfolded in “cloaks of silence and piety and routine.” The monks exist in an “interior world of subtle glances and vague alliances. Of notes and veiled expressions.”

It is also about the places we go to when we get lost in listening to music. The beautiful mystery of the title refers to the ancient chants performed by monks in the early days of the Catholic church; chants later forgotten, but which lie at the heart of the story.

Worth reading? Definitely yes. This is the eighth novel in a series about Chief Inspector Gamache, and I would be very happy to go back and read the entire series from the beginning.

World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read a crime novel set in every country in The Times Atlas of the World.

World Crime Atlas: Cambodia

Death in the Rainy Season, by Anna Jaquiery.

Plot: A Frenchman, Hugo Quercy, is found brutally murdered in a hotel room. He was the head of a humanitarian organisation helping to look after street children. Why had he booked into the hotel under an assumed name? What is the significance of his recent investigations of compulsory land grabs? And who broke into his house on the night of the murder?

Where: The story is very largely set in the capital city of Phnom Penh.

The detectives: This is the second book to feature Commander Serge Morel, a Paris-based detective with an unusual enthusiasm for origami. He is assisted this time by a one-legged Cambodian policeman, Chey Sarit.

Sense of Place: The story is set in the monsoon season, the intense rainfall blurring the world, the shifting light and perpetual mugginess making it difficult to keep track of time.

The French-Malaysian author (who left Cambodia as a child not long before the Khmer Rouge plunged the country into barbarism in 1975) describes Phnom Penh as “a vibrant city, full of charm and grace.” But much of this seems to be at risk in the fast-growing modern capital.

“All you have to do is look at this city to see how much has changed,” says one character. “Do you know what I remember of the old Phnom Penh? It was the most beautiful place you could imagine. There was hardly any poverty and we were content. Family was what mattered. From the family, everything flowed. . .Phnom Penh was truly a Cambodian city, a city with its own special Khmer flavour.”

But we are still given a snapshot of unchanging Phnom Penh street life: “Vendors cooking and selling their wares, mechanics and electricians tinkering on engines and television sets outside their repair shops, the parts scattered on the footpath. A young woman emptied a bucket of dirty water on the street, scaring a scabby, pregnant mutt. Another crossed the street, holding aloft a tray of fried spiders.”

The Khmer Rouge revolution, and the horrors of the Killing Fields, are always in the background; every Cambodian in the story is living with the consequences.

Worth reading? Yes. As well as the interesting setting, the story is well-plotted with clearly-visualised characters. I look forward to reading more Morel mysteries.

Our next destination will be Canada. Our book will be The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny.

World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read a crime novel set in every country in The Times Atlas of the World.

World Crime Atlas: Brazil

The Body Snatcher, by Patricia Malo.

Plot: “A tale of drug-dealing gone wrong, police corruption, and a macabre blackmail.” It starts with the (unnamed) narrator witnessing a small plane crashing into the Paraguay River. In the cockpit, together with the dead pilot, he finds a kilo of cocaine, which he pockets along with the pilot’s backpack and expensive watch. “Thus begins the protagonist’s long slide into corruption” with a Bolivian drug gang, the wealthy family of the pilot, the narrator’s morgue-attendant girlfriend, and a kidnapped cadaver involved along the way.

Where: The small town of Corumba, on the Brazilian lowlands bordering Bolivia.

The detectives: This isn’t really a police procedural, so the cops are on the periphery until the final twists in the plot.

Sense of Place: “The sun reigned over everything without pity.” That early sentence sums up an untamed and heat-blasted landscape; “the sky blue, the ground steaming, and people trying to flee the furnace.”

With such extreme heat, decay (especially in the police morgue) is never far away: “Everything in this city rots more quickly.”

We are allowed one glimpse of a potential Eden: “We’ve got everything,” one character says: “we’ve got forests, we’ve got pastures, we’ve got clear fields, we’ve got the most beautiful birds you can imagine.”

But heat and decay are drawn together in one vivid image late in the book: “The beggar was sleeping on a steaming tombstone, the sun hitting him in the face…We walked down the fetid passageways of the cemetery.”

Perhaps there is hope, however, in this last reference to the climate: “The sun was setting and a pleasant breeze was blowing in our direction.”

Worth reading? Yes. Once the plot is under way, it is Hitchcock-like in its remorseless inevitability, with sharp dialogue and taut writing.

World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read a crime novel set in every country in The Times Atlas of the World.

World Crime Atlas: Botswana

A Death in the Family, by Michael Stanley.

Plot: An old man with early-stage dementia is fatally stabbed in the street at night. The victim was the father of the Assistant Superintendent in the Botswana CID. Was the crime some form of revenge against the son? Events – including another murder and a failed attempt at a third – quickly disprove that theory. But the crimes are linked. A tale of multi-national corporate greed and government corruption emerges.

Where and when: The plot revolves around the historic town of Shoshong and its (fictional) Chinese-owned uranium mine. The setting is modern day.

The detectives: David ‘Kubu’ (Hippo) Bengu, Assistant Superintendent in the Botswana CID; Jacob Mabaku, his boss; Edison Banda and Samantha Khama, detectives in the CID.

Sense of Place: The book was praised for this by the much-respected (by me at least) Crime Fiction Lover website, but it is actually quite sparing in its description of the towns and countryside. It does score strongly on the cultural landscape of Botswana. At one point, Kubu reflects on how music is at the core of life; “We sing when a baby is born, we sing at birthdays and weddings, we sing at work and we sing when people die.” The author (actually a writing team of two South Africans, Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) returns to the theme at the funeral of Kubu’s father: The coffin is opened the night before the funeral, and crowds of mourners pray and sing until dawn. When the service is over, the crowd moves to the grave in a long procession, and the air is filled with song and ululations.

And I now know that a traditional funeral meal in Botswana will include a smooth maize meal porridge (sap), a fatty boiled meat dish (seswan) and dried corn kernels (samp); possibly washed down with Shake Shake beer, so named because you have to shake the carton to mix the ingredients before you can drink it.

But the book also examines darker themes – the clash of traditional and modern, the disconnection between village elders and disaffected young men, and the tension over the growing numbers of Chinese, who are investing heavily in the country but are distrusted over their motives.

There is also an undertow of suspicion that, below the benign family image of Botswana, is a disturbing acceptance of wife beating.

Worth reading? Yes. I use my e-reader on this project, for convenience in obtaining and storing books, and add the paper version when I discover a title or series I want to collect. This is the fifth in the Kubu Bengu series: I will be adding them all to my bookshelf.

World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read a crime novel set in each of the countries in The Times Atlas of the World. I am particularly interested in the sense of place created by the author.