Friday, November 10, 2017

Distant Memory

Oh no, not me
 I never lost control 
You're face to face 
With the man who sold the world 
"The Man Who Sold The World" (David Bowie)

The longer a book remains in my backlog of unread books, the less likely I'm going to read it, to be honest. Books don't move up the figurative pile based on how long they've been there, but are more likely to remain in the lower regions, as I tend to favor the books that have arrived more recently. This pile never shrinks by the way, so books which fall down to the lower regions remain there, without any hope of making their way to the top. The only way out of this limbo is a whim, when I suddenly decide to read that book for one reason or another even though it's been here for quite some while.

Not remembering what happened exactly last night isn't exactly a rare occasion for most people, but losing six years worth of memories is of course a tad extreme. The last memories Sergeant Hui Yau-Yat of the Hong Kong Police Force has are those of him investigating a brutal murder on a married couple (and unborn child) inside the Dungsing Building in 2003, but the following day, he wakes up with a splitting headache in his car and after he arrives at his work, he realizes it's now suddenly the year 2009. He has no recollection of anything that has happened in those six years, which makes the visit of a female reporter working on a story on the 2003 Dungsing Building Murder Case the more surprising. He learns from the newspaper clippings she brought that the Dungsing Building Murder Case had a tragic ending a few weeks after his last memory, with the main suspect dying in a horrible traffic accident they themselves caused while on the run, and the reporter wants to write an article on what happened after the case ended with the people involved, starting with Sergeant Hui as one of the detectives on the case. While his amnesia is definitely a problem, the detective feels the Dungsing Building Murder Case needs to be investigated at once, especially as he vividly remembers that he was the only one who thought they were in fact on the wrong trail, and that somebody else had committed the murders. The detective and reporter thus dig in the old Dungsing Building Murder Case while also looking for an explanation for his six-year blank in Chan Ho-Kei's Yíwàng, Xíngjǐng (2011), which also carries the English subtitle The Man Who Sold The World.

Chan Ho-Kei (also known as Simon Chan) is a mystery/science fiction novelist from Hong Kong who lives and publishes his work in Taiwan. His 2014 mystery novel 13.67 gathered much critical acclaim, and is available in English as The Borrowed, and in some European countries as Hongkong Noir (don't you just love it when they come up with so many variations on the title?). The book was recently published in Japanese and gathered a lot of praise there too, also from some major figures in the Japanese myster fictoin industry. All the commotion reminded me I had a book of him lying around too. The Man Who Sold The World was the winner of the second Soji Shimada Mystery Award, a Taiwanese award which involves international publication deals and as I can't read Chinese, I read the Japanese translation Sekai wo Utta Otoko (The Man Who Sold The World), which was published in 2012. The third Award was won by Hú Jié's Wǒ Shi Mànhuà Dàwáng by the way.

Amnesia is of course one of the most overused tropes in mystery fiction. It is an easy way to add suspense and mystery to a story, and a character. It's a way to add an internal conflict (or confusion) to a character, especially if, and this is usually the way the trope is used, the character suffering from amnesia is in fact connected in one way or another to the case at hand and their memories are of crucial importance to solving the whole problem. As the amnesia is involuntary, the character thought to be in possession of important information can't give them even if they wanted. But the many variations on the plot device are rather easily recognizable as they are simply so incredibly common, so it's quite difficult to really surprise the reader using the amnesia device.

The Man Who Sold The World obviously doesn't use the amnesia trope just for fun, so yes, it is involved with the main mystery plot, but the precise manner is sadly enough telegraphed very obviously, and as such, its execution falls a bit flat. To be completely honest, it's perfectly well-clewed and set-up, but the effect the novel apparently wants it have on the reader is not nearly as strong as intended. Mind you, I don't think a puzzle being easily solvable is a bad thing on its own. One of the most educative "Aha" moments I had with mystery fiction was with a short mystery story where the intention behind several elements were quite clear to the readers from the start (Don't worry, I can guarantee almost nobody read this story and never will). For example, the author wanted the reader to pick up that the murderer was lefthanded, and that they used a particular hallway to get to the crime scene. And it was clear that the dinner scene and the commotion about the watches was to show which of the characters was lefthanded. But I, and the other readers, still had fun with the story as while the intention of many elements were clear, we still had to puzzle around a bit as we needed to hunt for the elements we knew we needed. The puzzle wasn't just about who was lefthanded and who could've passed through the hallway, there were several characteristics the murderer must have, and the reader had to look very carefully in the text to see which character fitted all those characteristics, gathering several clues that were simple enough on their own, but made more complex due to how they interconnected. In The Man Who Sold The World however, the function of almost everything is to serve single one point, which makes it less satisfying as you either see it or not, and the execution is not bad, but certainly not astonishing. 

The solution to the Dungsing Building Murder Case is similarly executed in an admittedly very able, but still not terribly exciting manner. Describing the structuring, and clewing in The Man Who Sold The World as utilitarian might be going too far, especially as the narrative on its own is thrilling enough to keep the reader hooked, but I would've appreciated a bit more playfulness in terms of clewing, just to keep the reader on their toes better. For now, most of the clues connect too directly to their destination, and you don't really need to puzzle with several pieces to arrive at the solution.

Some might be interested in Hong Kong as a setting for a mystery story, as it's definitely not a common place to see. I am not entirely unfamiliar with Hong Kong, but I am not terribly familiar with the place either, but I thought its portroyal in The Man Who Sold The World interesting enough. It's definitely not alienating for the reader who has never been to Hong Kong, but you'll pick up little things here and there, like the food they eat in restaurants. I gather that the location is better portrayed in Chan's 13.67/The Borrowed/Hongkong Noir, as it's divided in various short stories spanning a longer period of time.

The Man Who Sold The World was in my eyes a decently written mystery novel, that however does lack a bit of oomph. The clewing is perhaps a bit too straightforward, which becomes all the more apparent as the core mystery plot, of the murder in the Dungsing Building, is rather small in scale, which makes the connections between clue and conclusion too transparent. I sadly didn't find out why Chan's other novel is so well received in this particular novel, though I still plan to read that one sooner or later.

Original Taiwanese title: "遺忘・刑警 - The Man Who Sold The World"


  1. This one still sounds interesting to me. William Marshall wrote a long series of detective novels set in Hong Kong which is referred to as the Yellowthread Street series. The ones I have read are not bad.

    1. Weary might not be the right term, but I've come across so many mystery stories about amnesia I find it's becoming hard to truly surprise me with the device, so your mileage on this book may vary quite from my experience.