Book Reviews
Hanging Devils

Hanging Devils


The subtitle of this book is ‘Hong Jun Investigates’, and it’s one of four in a series starring the same protagonist, a lawyer who has returned to Beijing after spending several years studying and working in America. It is the mid-1990s, and his status is assured in a post-Maoist society respectful of his foreign education and fascinated by his experience of the West, specifically America.

An idealist, Hong Jun sets up his own practice to deal with criminal cases for ordinary citizens, rather than with more lucrative commercial work. The tale begins with Hong Jun’s back story, but it soon takes off on a narrative archetypical of Western crime fiction: on a slow day at the office, a client walks in with the promise of a huge case paying loads of money, and everything follows from there. In Hanging Devils the client, Jianzhong, has a brother, Jianguo, who has been in prison for ten years for a murder he didn’t commit, or so says Jianzhong. The case interests Hong Jun in part because of the slightly sleazy brother, Jianzhong, who is an unashamedly wealthy product of the new get-rich-quick China, where corruption is the name of the game. Jianzhong is a suitable foil for our incorruptible and upstanding lawyer, Hong Jun, who wonders why Jianguo signed a confession of guilt instead of protesting his innocence.

The murder took place ten years before, on a state farm in the north-eastern region of China near Harbin. Hong Jun travels back and forth between the sophisticated city of Beijing and the frozen northern farmland, and back and forth in time between 1984 and 1994. The contrasts provide a sense of the cultural and political changes taking place at the time. The tensions between old and new, between political ambition and the rule of law, and between desire and restraint heighten the suspense and intrigue. The humanity of each character, even the guilty ones, is portrayed sympathetically, and this makes the outcome more complex. The victim, Li Hongmei, a beautiful, kind-hearted young girl, was a neighbour’s daughter with whom Jianguo had been in love. She had politely rejected him in favour of someone else, a boy she had been seeing in secret. Jianguo did the gentlemanly thing and stepped aside, not without a broken heart, but after her death rumours spread that he had killed her in revenge.

Hong Jun had been the type of child who ‘loved puzzles and mathematics problems, the harder the better’ and he now relishes the challenge of proving the identity of the real killer: ‘A crime had been committed, and someone had to be punished. It was all about balance and harmony.’ There are several suspects. One is the boyfriend, Xiao Xiong, who ‘was allegedly connected with the democracy movement back then’ and could have killed Hongmei ‘if she was a witness to, or an unwitting collaborator in his activities . . . He had means, motive and opportunity’ and disappeared after the murder, never to be seen again. But was Xiong running from guilt, or to hide from local government officials who had been skulking around the farm hoping to smoke him out?

Ten years later these same officials have risen to positions of higher authority – one of them is the chief of the Criminal Investigation Unit; the other is now party secretary. Their official roles require them to welcome important visitors to the town and they accord Hong Jun considerable respect. Hong Jun duly uses his status to persuade the officials to help him; nevertheless, he maintains his air of unimpeachable moral probity while slowly unravelling a cover-up, a miscarriage of justice and a wrongful conviction.

The author, like his main character, was educated and worked in America before moving back to China, where he is professor of law at Beijing’s prestigious People’s University. Although fluent in English, he writes his novels in Chinese. The spot-on, classic-crime tone and highly charged atmosphere has benefitted from translator Duncan Hewitt’s background as a journalist working in China.

I asked Professor He if he had read much Western crime fiction when he was studying law in Chicago. ‘I didn’t have time,’ he said. ‘It took me one year, rather than three, to complete my degree (a doctorate in law).’ As a child of the Cultural Revolution, ‘I didn’t have modern fiction available when I was growing up, but we did have Arthur Conan Doyle, which I read a lot of.’

The influence is clear, but He’s style could easily be compared to other crime writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and J. M. Cain – classic, but with an enjoyably modern, Chinese twist. He had wanted to write a novel with a detective as the main character but at that time in China there was no such thing. The first detective agency, says Professor He, opened its doors in 1992, was shut down a year later and resurfaced under the alternative title ‘investigation service’.

Professor He’s research interests include comparative criminal justice systems, criminal investigation and criminal procedures; his expertise makes his novels all the more believable and thought-provoking. When asked recently about corruption in China, the professor remarked on the number of university courses available now that conflate politics and law, which he insists should be separate. ‘With politics,’ says Professor He, ‘it’s win or lose; with law, it’s right or wrong. In China,’ he adds, ‘the political struggle does not only mean win or lose, but also life or death.’



Hanging Devils is published by Penguin.

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