The mystery in this modern Chinese morality tale is not ‘whodunit’. We share the killer’s perspective as he plans and enacts bloody murder and a subsequent escape. No mystery there. Instead, the mystery is ‘whydunit’. Why would a young man choose to obliterate a friendly classmate, effectively ending both their lives in violent cruelty? It’s plainly a question which has plagued the author, himself a police detective turned writer. The result is a slim novel which is very far removed from a conventional crime-thriller. Instead it’s an examination of motive, an attempt to understand the incomprehensible collapse of morality in 21st century society – both at the individual level and among the general population.
So, no mystery – but plenty of plot as the youthful killer goes on the run. We share his encounters with the sordid side of small town citizens. His essentially empty internal existence is echoed in the everyday examples of corruption and callousness which he encounters at each turn. He’s rapidly identified by the police as the killer – but can the system bring him to justice? Who will be held responsible for his crimes? Indeed, who is responsible for his crimes?
It’s deeply unsettling stuff which challenges the standard conventions of the crime genre. You can read ‘A Perfect Crime’ simply at its superficial level, but there’s much more going on in its murky depths. What initially appears to be a psychological investigation into a single sociopath has far broader relevance to China’s recent political, societal, familial and economic upheavals. This isn’t a book about one unhinged individual: it’s a book about a society that’s fraying at the seams…
The English translation retains the intrinsic ‘otherness’ of the original language and the thinking which underpins it. Throughout, the language is elegant in its simplicity but it naturally incorporates concepts which the western mindset doesn’t automatically adopt. You get the feeling of being slightly out of sync with the narrative and the peculiarities of the protagonist – which adds to the overall disconcerting effect of the story. The text does suffer from the odd editing glitch here and there, but these rarely interrupt the flow.
A perfect novel for readers who enjoy explicit, challenging literary fiction. But don’t expect the ending to deliver tidy resolutions – this is a story which provokes many more questions than it answers.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
‘A Perfect Crime’ by A Yi is available in paperback or as an ebook
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