Chan Ho-Kei’s ‘13.67’ (translated into English as ‘The Borrowed’) offers a retrospective look at the evolution of Hong Kong and its society over six decades.

In many ways, crime fiction is a very demanding genre. It is bound and defined by “rules” that the author devises (though they may be broken by others later on). It also has to pander to popular demands – a gripping plot, solid, plausible motives, believable characters, social commentary, appropriate settings and atmosphere, and so on.

One of the criticisms levelled against the genre is that its practitioners sacrifice one of these elements excessively to enhance the effect of another. If the whodunnit aspect is brilliant, the motive can turn out to be pretty weak. If the howdunnit bit of the mystery is genius, the portrayal of characters may well be a dud. The result, in any of these cases, is likely to attract detractors more than admirers.

Striking the right synergy or balance between these disparate elements is often difficult and tricky and the subject of much head-scratching among mystery authors. However, should this miracle be achieved, the end product can be a sheer delight.

Crime, detection, and Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s Chan Ho-Kei is a man who has donned several hats – he has worked as a software engineer, a game designer, a manga editor and a lecturer. As such, his name may have remained unfamiliar to me forever were it not for the fact that he also happens to be the author of one of the most superlative efforts in detective fiction in recent years which I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

Ho-Kei’s 2014 offering, 13.67 (a clever nod to the period the work spans – between 1967 and 2013), was translated in 2016 with the rather ambiguous title of The Borrowed. In the book’s six interlinked tales, Ho-Kei gives readers a retrospective look at the evolution of Hong Kong and its society over six decades – through the lens of crime, politics, detection, and its police force.

What’s most striking is that this is one of those rare gems that successfully bridges the gap between the social school of mystery writing and the classic puzzle plot mystery that are so often at odds with each other. There’s a lot of diversity in the stories too, sufficient to keep you hooked for many a day – besides the logical puzzle plot, there’s something on offer for fans of police procedurals, hardboiled stories and those who like a hint of socio-political commentary in stories as well.

The protagonist of The Borrowed is Kwan Chun-dok, former Superintendent of the Hong Kong Police who later became a consultant for the same. Renowned for his exceptional crime-solving abilities, he was bestowed many nicknames – ’Crime-Solving Machine’, ‘Eye of Heaven’, ‘Genius Detective’ (and Kwan’s pick of the lot, ‘Uncle Dok’ – also a common Cantonese name for very miserly people). But, reading the first story (“The Truth Between Black and White”), you’ll be hard-pressed to believe that he could be that ‘grand detective’ from legend. For we first encounter him on his deathbed where he doesn’t even have the ability to speak or write.

Instead, Kwan’s protégé, Inspector Sonny Lok, employs his services (as an ‘armchair detective’ of sorts) in a tricky case where an ‘inside job’ (a murder) is made to look like a robbery gone wrong. Kwan is able to deceptively ‘solve’ the case after he is hooked up to a device that analyses his brain waves, through which he is able to respond only with a yes or no to questions asked. It’s a device I have seen once in an episode of that meme-worthy excuse of a detective show called CID – but rest assured, it has been executed with far greater finesse here.

One of my most favourite things about this book is that it actually follows up on threads and hints that are left dangling before the reader in another story. Characters and locations reappear in multiple stories – and it may perhaps be possible for those truly curious to chart a map of Hong Kong and its changes through the decades, relying on the descriptions here. Apple, the brains behind the unique medical instrument in the first tale, is a central character in the second story (“Prisoner’s Honour”).

Set in the midst of gang warfare and featuring triads, “Prisoner’s Honour” takes a harrowing look at the Hong Kong underworld and also reveals the seedier aspects of the entertainment world. It takes a hardboiled approach but delivers a surprisingly logical conclusion that also carries with it an element of hope for a better future. With its message of hope and elements of social realism, this story is similar to the fifth story (“Borrowed Place”) where Kwan has to solve the case of the kidnapping of a British child (apparently for ransom money) while also having to deal with rising tensions between the police and other law enforcement agencies, as well as the increasing conflicts between the local and international cadres among the police.

Lok’s beginnings and his relationship with mentor Kwan are explored in the third (“The Longest Day”) and the fourth story (“The Balance of Themis”). Both plots focus on Kwan’s relentless pursuit of his ultimate nemesis, Shek Boon-tim, and are, arguably, the crème de la crème of the lot. Set against the backdrop of the British handover of Hong Kong, “The Longest Day” opens with convict Shek Boon-tim evading and escaping guards en route to the hospital.

As if this wasn’t disastrous enough for his last day in the police force, Kwan also has to help his disciple Lok in solving the case of acid bomb attacks before more damage is done, both to innocent bystanders and the police force’s image. A number of curious but seemingly unrelated incidents may grab the reader’s attention, but the neat, rational manner in which Kwan ties it all, with one central incident as the focal point, is testament to Ho-Kei’s consummate skill as a plotter of the highest order.

A vivid, historical and socio-political portrait of Hong Kong

At this point, it should be evident that Ho-Kei expends much of his efforts unravelling the fraught nature of relations between Hong Kong’s various law enforcement agencies and the extent to which they become mired in corruption in each decade. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “The Balance of Themis”, perhaps the darkest story in this collection. A stake-out mission to capture one of the Shek brothers, Shek Boon-sing, and their gang, goes horribly wrong in the enormous residential building, Ka Fai Mansions, where they are holed up, leaving six bystanders and three criminals dead, and several policemen injured. But all is not what it seems and a message on a pager warning the criminals suggests the presence of a mole within the police team.

The way in which Kwan subverts the established sequence of events completely and unearths the real motive behind all that happened should be a lesson for crime-fiction writers in the art of judicious clue- and information-management and revelation at the correct juncture. Above all, the helping hand that Kwan extends to the rookie Lok (after the events of the failed mission) and his solemn vow to capture the other Shek who escaped and clean up the police force make it hard for one to not root for Kwan Chun-dok.

In the last story (“Borrowed Time”), the reader is transported to 1967 Hong Kong, a summer that saw violent protests and riots in the region. Here, the rookie Kwan, as a beat/patrol cop, is able to thwart a few planned bomb attacks with the crucial help (and brains) of a ‘stranger’, who becomes a person of interest and whistleblower. The socio-political setting is vibrant and it thrives in atmosphere, but this is, by no means, a traditional puzzle plot story. Kwan even becomes an unwitting ‘criminal’ towards the end. Still, it is a vital chapter in Kwan’s life and career that has a curious circularity about it, when one thinks, retrospectively, of the characters he keeps encountering. You’ll of course need to read till the last page to figure out its surprising connection with the first story which is set nearly five decades apart.

The one sore note in the book is the uneven portrayal/representation of women in the stories. The first two stories have strong, empowering women who have their own arcs of redemption and play influential roles in the events of each. However, the fourth and fifth stories have women who have downright tertiary roles. Worse, they are stereotyped and fulfill patriarchal roles and functions that will strike a nerve among many readers today. I do not know if Ho-Kei was trying to say something about the way Hong Kong’s society treated women, even those from the upper middle class, in those days, but it could have definitely been handled with more sensitivity and maturity.

The reverse-chronological narrative adds a distinct charm to the book – in many parts, it feels like viewing a vivid, historical and socio-political portrait of Hong Kong, only backwards. While that’s definitely one way to enjoy it, a more stimulating and entertaining way to read it would be to work out the many refreshing ways in which the stories, occupying certain points in times past, form different pairs, triads (or even more) with each other. The commonalities may be diverse – the themes addressed, concurring character arcs and intersecting storylines, among others – but this singular exercise, I believe, is essential if one is to derive maximum joy from it.

"13.67" translated from the Chinese into the English as "The Borrowed" by Jeremy Tiang.