Reviewed by Paul Burke
Fate is a superb follow up to one of the most original crime novels of last year, Death Notice; all the more fascinating for British readers as a window on modern China. Zhou Haohui’s UK debut was based on an intriguing premise; a murderer trawls for his victims online by asking people to suggest candidates for judgement. Then he exacts a final and irrevocable punishment for their sins. The idea is all the more chilling for its loose basis in real events. Fate is the second part of what will become the Death Notice trilogy, every bit as dark and just as gripping as the first installment. This is as twisty and clever as the first book, which, incidentally, has a superb ending – pure poetry, a real kicker! To follow that Fate starts with a bang and the story never lets up.
I would recommend reading Death Notice before this book but it isn’t essential there’s a very handy recap that makes it easy to get into this phase of the story for new readers or remind fans of the first novel of the names and basic events that happened. So here’s a rough outline of the story in part 1: In October, 2002, death notices are found at the site of murders in the city of Chengdu. One of the victim was a police officer from the 18th April Task Force which was set up to solve the mystery of a series of murders at the police academy eighteen years earlier. A vigilante calling himself Eumenides, (the Greek goddess of vengeance), is finally unmasked as Yuan Zhibang – the police are closing in. In a few days Eumenides will be dead, killed in an explosion. But the murders won’t stop, not even a respite, there an accomplice out there, trained and ready, a new killer…
Fate: Midnight, October 24th, 2002; a run down district of Chengdu in Sichuan province. Two men meet in the shadows as they have done for more than a decade. The older scarred man says he has little time, the police are on to him. So the younger man is on his own now, he must take up the mantle, give vent to his desires.
‘I’m aware of the urges you have, how much you long to experience those sides of life that I have kept from you. Once I’m gone, you should act on these urges.’
25th October, there’s an explosion at the Jade Garden restaurant, two men dead, finally Eumenides has been stopped. The next day police sift the devastated scene for the gruesome evidence that will confirm his death. 28th October, in a suite at the Thousand Peaks Hotel three pupils, Red, Goldearring and Curly, are tormenting their teacher as they usually do. They are anticipating the arrival of the mysterious stranger who has laid on a buffet for them and promised them a reward. When he arrives each pupil is handed a Scarlett envelop, but there’s nothing lucky about these missives, the rewards promised are not what the youths were expecting. Curly opens his:
The Accused: Xie Guanlong (‘Curly’)
Crime: Humiliating a teacher
Date of Punishment: 28 October
Curly asks if it’s a joke, Eumenides slits his throat. The three have humiliated their teacher and posted it online. The teacher begs for the lives of the two remaining youths, new Eumenides offers to halt if the teacher cuts off one of his own hands by way of penance. In his eyes this would be redemption for the weak teacher and a lesson the pupils will never forget…
Later at Chengdu railway station. Eumenides is dead, captain Pei Tao, is returning to his job in Longzhou when Miss Mu, the psychologist, catches up with him. He can’t leave the Task Force’s job is not done and Commissioner Song has organised a permanent transfer to Chengdu for Pei Tao. He will soon be teamed up again with Mu, computer expert Zeng Rihua and Lieutenant Yin Jian in the hunt for a serial killer. Everything is set up for a game of cat and mouse, devilishly dark and chilling.
Even if you are good at second guessing plots the events of the past and the present in Fate will surprise you, as they did in Death Notice. This is a full on thriller from start to finish, a police procedural that revels in pushing against the boundaries of the format and has a very distinct Chinese background and feel that is beautifully realised. The truth is like an iceberg, you see the ten percent but know ninety percent is still hidden beneath the surface. There’s a clever use of red herrings and sleight-of-hand and it’s all done with panache.
Haohui has created memorable characters, catching up with them again was enjoyable. Charismatic, intelligent and vulnerable Detective Pei, blunt no nonsense psychologist Mu and diabolical villainy. Although the novel is gritty and pacy there are moments of real humour that lighten the mood but add to the tension. Excellently translated by Zac Haluza.
This second part of the trilogy reflects on the changes going on in China. A reflection on the development of gargantuan new urban populations sprawling across the landscape as regional cities explode in size. Industrialisation and development bringing jobs but also fostering; insecurity, loneliness, corruption, anonymity, poverty and a boom time for the criminal underclass. Chengdu, is an ancient city but now has a population of Seven million and it’s growing, messily, uncontrolled, every day. One thing that people are never short on is an opinion when it comes to judging the people around them; perfect for the killer.
China will turn out to be a fantastic source of new crime writing in coming years, Zhou Haohui is among the first in a field that could be very interesting in the future. I’m already looking forward to the third installment.
Head of Zeus, Hardback, ISBN 9781838930806, out now.