Half a dozen short crime stories make up the pages of Chang Ho-Kei’s The Borrowed, taking us backwards through several decades of policing in Hong Kong. We meet our great detective at the twilight of his career, lying comatose in a bleak room at Wo Yan Hospital. His protégé, Sonny Lok, has made the visit. He’s on a case, we learn, that only the once renowned Kwan Chun-Dok can solve.
This first case is perhaps the most distilled. A mystery with enough twists and turns to pad out an entire airport novel, and yet one set almost exclusively within the confines of Kwan Chun-Dok’s hospital room. Motive, means, and opportunity are revealed in quick succession, leaving just enough space for us to have a stab at solving the case ourselves. Those first twenty pages are a brilliant little puzzle and introduce the delicious menu of crimes and conundrums yet to come.
Every case feels markedly different from the last. Variety is key to the thrilling, unputdownable nature of The Borrowed. One story uncovers the politics and grudges behind an impending Triad conflict. Another begins as a kind of locked-room mystery: how has a criminal escaped a guarded bathroom, and does it have anything to do with a recent spate of acid attacks? The beginnings of each new story are an absolute joy, as you unravel what subgenre of crime fiction Chang Ho-Kei will tackle next. There are ransoms, corrupt police, and genius villains. Some stories are vivacious, taking us on a breakneck tour of Hong Kong. Sometimes, a resolution only comes after studious research into suspects and crime scenes. The Borrowed is quite a hefty book, but these shifting genres and tempos make it a breezy read.
Translator Jeremy Tiang has done an excellent job expounding upon the specificities of life in Hong Kong. The influences of political and cultural agents from both Britain and Mainland China seem to have governed the modernisation of the Hong Kong police force. As time shifts backwards throughout the novel, we are made privy to the huge systemic and technological advancements made in just a few decades, and it’s fascinating to see how this impacts Kwan Chun-Dok’s approach to solving crime (and equally the ways in which it doesn’t). Occasional dustings of historical and social commentary filter through. Nothing too heavy – this certainly isn’t a history lesson. Yet it’s an element of flavour that really stands out to a British reader like me. Chang Ho-Kei works hard to present varied views towards the police, perspectives which are a distinct product of an evolving Hong Kong.
The prose, at times, can feel a little workmanlike. Each sentence is more interested in giving you information over sensation. For a (mostly) fair-play series of mysteries, this works perfectly well. Here is a novel primarily concerned with plot, and when that plot is as intricately constructed as this, you hardly notice the weaker elements. I did struggle to feel truly connected to the characters at times, but this is more to do with the structure of the novel than the writing itself. The major cast all have vivid personalities, and Kwan Chun-Dok’s mentorship of Sonny Lok is particularly poignant and engaging. By beginning at the end, however, The Borrowed struggles to highlight the development and growth of its leads.
But that’s just fine. Chang Ho-Kei knows why you’re really here: to find out whodunnit. And as a buffet of clever, logical, and thrilling mysteries, The Borrowed most certainly succeeds.
Both a thrilling tour through several decades of policing in Hong Kong, and a bouquet of varied crime subgenres plotted to perfection, The Borrowed is the perfect read for any armchair detective.