Like Columbo but not funny.
This is Soji Shimada Mystery Award winner Chan’s first novel to be translated into English; it's a lengthy, ambitious tale about a legendary detective named Kwan Chun-dok, examining his career from the mid-1960s to the present day—and examining Kwan's beat, Hong Kong, during those fraught, turbulent years. Arranged in free-standing but interconnected novellas, proceeding in reverse chronological order, the book charts Kwan’s evolution from savvy field investigator to head of the force’s intelligence division against the backdrop of such historical events as the 1967 leftist riot, the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre, and the epochal handover of 1997. Through these juxtapositions, Chan attempts to embroider both cultural history and psychological character study, but he fails to profitably exploit his setting or word count in this aim; the historical details provide sporadically engaging window dressing, but Chan’s characters seldom address them directly, and Kwan himself remains something of a cipher, a genius at deduction with a generic, Tintin-like good-guy effect. Chan’s strong suit is procedural plotting: the meat of the book is Kwan’s crime-solving, and the author displays a formidable mastery of wrangling complex exposition in scenarios involving such calumny as an escaped nemesis bent on revenge, a kidnapping, and a series of terrorist bombings. Institutional corruption and the public’s growing mistrust of the police emerge as the narrative’s glum, overarching themes, lending the backward storytelling scheme a melancholy poignancy—but, despite Chan's aspirations to historical, cultural, and psychological insight, the real satisfaction here is found in the meat-and-potatoes cops-and-robbers material.
Sprawling and dense, this novel will satisfy your procedural jones, but don’t look for more than a cursory reckoning with the troubled history of Hong Kong.