There are two vital components when it comes to crafting a murder mystery story: there’s a body, and there’s the quest to find the person who put it there. A great mystery novel will wrap these two things up in layers of clues, red herrings, jealous siblings and jilted lovers.
To author Chan Ho-kei, though, there is one more aspect that’s needed for a great story.
“The most powerful element of a mystery novel, to me, is its ability to deceive and shock the viewer at the end of the story. The twist changes how you see everything [that came before it].”
Chan, author of several award-winning books, has become an unlikely representative of crime fiction in Hong Kong thanks to his recently translated book, The Borrowed.
The book is made up of six interconnected stories going backwards in time, beginning in 2013 with the main character, genius detective Kwan Chun-dok, on his deathbed; and ending in 1967, with Kwan’s career rise during the Leftist riots against the British government.
Soon after Chan published The Borrowed in Chinese, the international rights to it were picked up by a Taiwanese book firm. At the time his book was being promoted at an international book fair, the Umbrella Movement was just getting started – and the subject matter of his book, the police, just coming under intense public scrutiny.
Critical reaction to his novel has been decidedly positive – the book has been translated into 12 languages and the movie rights have been picked up by internationally renowned director Wong Kar-wai.
Chan, a former software designer and comics editor, insists his new-found international success is merely the product of coincidence.
“I didn’t expect this at all. I only wrote The Borrowed because I had some money, so I didn’t need to write pulp fiction to survive.”
Chan had originally set out to write a single short story, but he soon realised if he wanted to write more (and he did), he’d have to rethink how and what he wrote about.
“I felt like I was writing propaganda about this noble and skilled police officer solving crimes. That’s very different from how we see the police. I had to consider how to change the stories.”
Ultimately, he decided to stick with his police protagonist, but he “would write backwards, and use the main character to explore the historic ups and downs of the police force”.
Chan, who grew up in the 80s and lived through the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the mainland, remembers reading translated Western classics in school, like The Three Musketeers. His future in writing was cemented when he read – and loved – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Part of his motivation in writing The Borrowed was down to having watched how Hong Kong’s social environment has evolved, a topic he plans on discussing at next month’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival.
“I knew I had to write about 1967. The Umbrella Movement hadn’t taken place yet when I wrote [The Borrowed], but respect for police officers was also very, very low in 1967. They would take bribes and other things.” It feels, Chan adds, very similar to what is happening now in Hong Kong – the last of respect, anyway.
When asked whether his success will change how he writes his next piece, Chan says it will.
“You can’t force young people to read things like Ulysses [a famous literary piece by American writer James Joyce] – that won’t convince them to want to read. The Borrowed is super thick, and that will scare off some younger readers. My next book will be thematically, and physically, lighter.”
For all of his success though, Chan acknowledges it can be tough being a writer.
“Surviving as a professional author in Hong Kong is next to impossible,” he says but adds that it’s a bit of a consuming passion. “I think if you want to write books, no matter how long you work in another job, you’ll still want to write.” His final piece of advice? Even if you’re making a living doing something you dislike, hold fast to your hopes and dreams.
“Don’t forget what you want to do [just] because you’re doing something you don’t want to do.”