Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Bad Kids, by Zijin Chen


Pushkin Vertigo, 2022
translated by Michelle Deeter
332 pp

paperback (read earlier this month) 

Continuing to try to catch up on my posts here,  Bad Kids by Zijin Chen is yet another book in the Pushkin Vertigo collection, available in English for the first time.   There is another book by this author that has been translated from Chinese to English by Michelle Deeter, The Untouched Crime, published by Amazon Crossing.  Needless to say, when I found out about that one, I hit the buy button immediately.   

A brief word about Bad Kids:  the back-cover blurb labels this novel as "Dark, heart-stopping and violent," and I'll agree to dark and certainly to violent, but "heart-stopping" is a bit over the top.  However,  it is certainly one of the most twisty novels I've enjoyed in a while, meaning that just when you think the endgame has played out, there's more.  And then some.  

It's July, 2013, and Zhang Dongsheng has taken his wife's parents for an outing at Sanmingshan, "the most famous mountain in Ningbo," and now a nature park. The in-laws are happy to be there -- it's a popular and crowded place on holidays but on the day of their visit the park is "practically empty."   The "filial son-in-law" suggests that they make their way to an observation point,  where they'll take a break.  Once there, he looks around and sees no one nearby except three kids "clowning around near a pavilion," but "dismissed them as unimportant," then offers to take the in-laws-  picture with the great view behind them as backdrop, convincing them that they should sit on the wall for a better photo.  Once they've done that, he puts his hands on their shoulders as if to position them just so, and then, with a smile on his face, picks up their legs and it's 再见 (zaijian, bye-bye) to the in-laws as they go tumbling down the mountain.  Zhang knows that there is no way they could have survived that fall, yet a few people had heard the in-laws scream so he has to make it look legit and calls for help.   Outwardly he looks panicked; inwardly he's smiling at the thought that he'd committed the perfect crime; even the police label it accidental death.   What he doesn't know (and this is not spoiler territory -- it's on the back cover) is that while he thinks he got away with it,  those "unimportant" kids have inadvertently caught it all on video.  

Two of the three kids,  a boy by the name of Ding Hao and his friend, a girl called Pupu, had run away from an abusive situation in an orphanage  in Beijing,  and not wanting to return to their respective homes, had made their way to Ningbo and to the home of the third, Zhu Chaoyang, Ding Hao's friend in primary school.  To make a very long and complicated story a bit shorter,  Chaoyang's father gives him an old camera, and the kids decide to go to the nature park at Sanmingshan, where Chaoyang's mother works; it just so happens that they were there at the same time that Zhang Dongsheng was knocking off his in-laws.  The kids spend time taking photos, making videos and goofing around with the camera, and after arriving back at Chaoyang's place (and just before heading to KFC), Pupu discovers that they've picked up something completely unexpected on video -- the death of Zhang Dongsheng's in-laws as it really happened.   Chaoyang is ready to report the murder to the police, but is stopped by Pupu, who reminds him that the police just might ask who the other kids were on the video, and would likely send them back to the orphanage, which is an unacceptable choice.  As the back cover blurb notes, "an opportunity for blackmail presents itself," with Pupu deciding that she and Ding Hao could use the cash for their futures.   And so it begins ... with consequences unforeseen for all involved.  

If this were all there was to the plot, it would still be good.  But Zijin Chen isn't quite finished with his readers yet.  There's much more going on outside of the blackmail as one of the characters takes it upon himself to commit a horrific act that will also generate some serious fallout for everyone involved, and then, well let's just say that there will be more deaths than those of Zhang Donsheng's in-laws.   There is, of course, a police inspector looking into these, but for me the story was less about the investigation than the choices that were made in each instance and the resulting consequences.  

Bad Kids was a fun novel to read, and little by little as all of the unexpected twists and turns came into play, and characters played various battles of wit with each other,  it was seriously difficult to put the book down.  I have to admit to a few eyerolls here and there and thoughts of "as if" at different points, but the novel makes for hours of entertainment even as the author shines a light on the complicated nature of family relationships and more than a few social issues that show up within the story.  And by the way, the ending was perfect.  After reading this one,   I would really love to see more Chinese crime novels in translation (hint hint, Pushkin Vertigo).   

Recommended to people who enjoy twisty crime novels and who don't mind going deep into the dark in their reading.  

Monday, December 26, 2022

coming your way in January: Awake and Die, by Robert Ames

Stark House Press, 2023
178 pp


I just noticed that my last post here was in July. Ouch! On the other hand, July through September is usually spent reading the Booker Prize longlist, and truth be told, I haven't read my usual volume of books this year. According to goodreads, it's just 70 to date, but with this book, Awake and Die, we can up that to 71.  

In the brief author bio in the back of this book, we learn that  Robert Ames is the pseudonym of Charles Lee Clifford (1890-1991), who wrote two other books under this name:  The Devil Drives (1952) and  The Dangerous One (1954).  Memo to self: I need to have these.    Awake and Die is part of Stark House's  fantastic Black Gat collection, but was originally published in 1955,  number 518 in the old Fawcett Gold Medal series.  This  Stark House reprint duplicates the cover of the Gold Medal edition, minus the blurb 

"Murder was a pleasure and women were a pain." 

 Just to be very clear here, Awake and Die is not a whodunit; all you need to do is to read the basic outline  laid out on the back cover blurb to know that this is not an armchair detective sort of thing.  More importantly though, at the very beginning of the novel the narrator, Will Peters, wants the reader to judge whether he is a "cold-blooded killer" or if he "was off in the head," recounting events that take him up to the present day.  As he also says, "it wasn't anybody's fault, except fate's," which in my opinion sort of also challenges the reader to decide whether or not that's how it was.  

from Bookscans

It seems that Peters had been injured during the war in Korea when a bullet had pushed a piece of his helmet into his head.   After three operations, doctors finally managed to get it "all cleaned out."  Being "an outside man," after his surgeries Peters makes his way home to New Jersey to a place called Bayhaven, where he works as a clamdigger; he is to report every couple of weeks  "to be checked" by an Army Reserve doctor in the area.  One day as he lifts his basket of clams out of his boat (to be given to the doctor, a Dr. Algee, as thanks), he notices a gorgeous woman who offers her help with the heavy load, and it seems to be a mutual, instant attraction.  Claire Grace is her name, and after a while he learns among other things that she lives in the "richer part" of Bayhaven and that she's married.  After they spend some time at a bar with a couple of drinks and a dance, she scoots off after Will invites her to his place, making the excuse of not realizing how late it was.  Still, Will can't get his mind off of her, thinking that Claire was "the kind of woman a man ought to have."  

When he finally makes it back to his place, he notices a light on in the house and thinks maybe Claire might have taken him up on his offer.  The thought makes him "feverish," but it's only his former girlfriend Mae there, with her "brassy-dyed hair," her "glaring white makeup with bright-red lipstick" and her fake British accent, waving her cigarette around.   As Peters notes, "it was remembering Claire Grace, and comparing her with this drunken babe, that so enraged me."   Suffice it to say that this is the point when this story truly takes off, leaving bodies to pile up one after the other, a detective with a need to prove himself  who will not give up under any circumstances, and yet another woman who could very easily put Peters in the big house for life.  

Even though this is not a whodunit (as I noted earlier),  there is more than enough here to satisfy any reader of older crime fiction, especially because of  the many twists the author throws into the basic plot, some expected, some definitely not.     Ames lays on the sleaze factor a bit thickly in this story, which given the time of its writing is not unusual, but on the flip side, he was a fine plotter and a pretty good writer, keeping me reading and not wanting to put the book down, tying up a lot of loose ends so that I wasn't left in the dark about anything.    Evidently he was also not without a sense of humor.  One of Peters' neighbors is an old recluse who speaks to others via his seagull, his dog and his cat, each with its own distinct personality and voice; it seems that any one of them (she says, tongue-in-cheek) could potentially make the rest of Will's life miserable. [I really had to chuckle at this bit -- my dog often answers me back or makes comments in a thick New Yawk accent when I'm feeling a bit silly.]  

 My many and very grateful thanks to Stark House for my copy -- I've just recently bought a couple of their books, Only the Good, by Mary Collins (1942) and a two-volumes-in-one edition of The Make-Believe Man (1963) and A Friend of Mary Rose (1961) written by Elizabeth Fenwick, but looking through the little book pamphlet included with those, I'm super, super excited about reading Jay Dratler's Pitfall, which they list as "First in a series of Film Noir Classics."  I'm actually so stoked about that one that I'm going to go buy it now.    

Awake and Die is a big yes for me and it should most certainly be for those people who enjoy indulging in crime from yesteryear.  Recommended, definitely.