A series of near-impossible murders in in Chengdu, China, are connected by the beautifully-penned ‘death notices’ which precede them, daring the police to stop this calculating killer. Each of the victims has to atone for his or her crimes; adultery, betrayal, murder and corruption. But this serial killer’s secrets start far in the past, with the intertwined histories of the key investigators. The killer seems to effortlessly evade justice as the trail grows more tangled – and various members of the task force are keeping deadly secrets…
This is the opening episode in a trilogy, which explores the development of a devious vigilante. It’s stuffed full of cryptic clues and red herrings; deception, deviation and dishonesty, which build into a thoroughly satisfying self-contained story. There’s plenty left unresolved for the next instalment, but Death Notice doesn’t leave you desperately dangling on a cliff-hanger.
If you enjoy the subtle subterfuge of understated Scandi crime then this unpredictable intrigue will feel somewhat familiar. It’s much more a police procedural – a good old fashioned puzzle to be solved – than an action / thriller. Quite a bit of the action takes place out of sight, in fact, and we only learn about it as the characters gradually reveal their conflicting accounts. The amusement lies in picking them apart and deciding who you believe…
Death Notice also provides illuminating insights into modern Chinese society and the strict social conventions which govern professional and personal relationships. If you’re unfamiliar with Chinese fiction (be it written or filmed) then the abrupt style of dialogue might seem somewhat shouty, as the various investigators and their criminal counterparts do tend to bark at each other. Communication can be clipped, as can description, leaving much to the reader’s imagination.
The writing (and English translation) is fairly no-frills, in fact, and I struggled to connect with the main characters – perhaps because none of them felt especially trustworthy. The plot, on the other hand, is sneakily seductive, taking an erratic turn into the unknown, just when you thought you’d figured it out. And there several gloriously gruesome servings of just desserts.
Entertaining, unpredictable international intrigue.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Death Notice by Haohui Zhou is available at Amazon