Death Notice by Zhou Haohui

Review published on July 8, 2018.

Death Notice has an intriguing premise: A murderer advertises for his victims online, he’s looking for people to suggest candidates for a final judgement. Its a theme that could be playful or dark. I’m personally delighted to say it’s the latter. The opening to the novel makes it clear that this is not fun and light-hearted but proper noir. However, Death Notice isn’t just intriguing, it’s also totally gripping and very chilling. Just so you know, when you think you’ve got a handle on what is happening, there are still twists and turns aplenty – the ending is pure poetry, a real kicker!

October, 2002, Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China; Sergeant Zhang Haoming flashes a piece of paper with an IP address in front of the manager of a crowded internet café. He demands to see the computer it relates to; surreptitiously, he photographs the young man using it. Its one of a number of men he has photographed this way in recent weeks. When he shows the photos to hideously scarred Huang, he fails to recognise any of them and another lead goes cold. After 18 years the enquiry stalls again.

Two days later Captain Han Hao is informed that Sergeant Zhang has been murdered. The crime was reported by another detective, Captain Pei Tao, but he is way off his patch, Longzhou. Pei has examined the scene, much to Han’s annoyance, but he has crucial knowledge about what Zhang was up to investigating an old case. A case so sensitive that the details have been classified secret. They think they have a lead; Zhang’s camera has the photos of 57 men on it, Pei points out one face has been deleted; the man at the Skyline Cyber Café. Zheng’s killing is now connected to a series of murders 18 years before, the killer is active again. The technical team manages to trace a message the killer placed online that ends:

“Tell me what they have done.
I will judge them.
You have two weeks before I post the final version of my list.”

A task force is set up, including Ms. Mu Jianyou, a criminal psychologist and Pei, who may be a suspect. When they examine the event of 18 years before, the first victim was the Vice-Commissioner of Chengdu Criminal Police, Xue Dalin, they find that a note was left at the scene that read:

“DEATH NOTICE
THE ACCUSED: Xue Dalin
CRIMES: Dereliction of duty, accepting bribes, collusion with organized crime
DATE OF PUNISHMENT: April 18
EXECUTIONER: Eumenides”

The executioner was as good as his word but Pei’s roommate at the police academy, Yuan Zhibang, was also killed. All a bit complicated, although it is laid out straightforwardly. Yet, things are only just getting interesting, nothing is as it seems. The new task force has no idea just how dark the territory they are stepping into is.

No matter how well you second guess the relationship between characters in the past or the present, Haohui’s clever and intricate plot will fox you. This is a full on thriller from start to finish, a police procedural that revels in pushing against the boundaries of the format. In Death Notice secrets are like icebergs, even when revealed 90% is still hidden under water. Some secrets are slight of hand but it’s very stylishly done.

Haohui has created some memorable characters (I am looking forward to the way their relationships develop in the next novel). We have hard-headed Detective Chief Han, charismatic intelligent and vulnerable Detective Pei, blunt no nonsense psychologist Mu, a few grotesques and a diabolical villain who wants to take on the police in a deadly game. Although the novel is gritty and pacy there are moments of real humour. Poor Jinyou Feng doesn’t know what hits him when he follows his colleague, Captain Pei. Death Notice is well written and beautifully translated. There is some genuinely scary storytelling here and the brilliant premise is plausible.

This feels like a crime novel born out of the changes going on in China. A response to the development of gargantuan new urban populations sprawling across the landscape as regional cities explode in size. Industrialisation and development bringing jobs but also fostering insecurity, loneliness, corruption, anonymity and a boom time for the criminal underbelly of the city. Chengdu is an ancient city but now has a population of seven million and it’s still growing, messily, every day.

China will turn out to be a fantastic source of new crime writing in the coming few years. For now, the good news is this is the first in a trilogy so there are two more novels to look forward to when you finish Death Notice.

Paul Burke 5/5

Death Notice by Zhou Haohui
Head of Zeus 9781786699404 hbk Jun 2018

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