There are 6 interlocking stories in Chan Ho-kei’s The Borrowed, each one is as good as the previous one. In fact, I would say they are all uniformly awesome. I read a lot of crime thrillers and detective procedurals, so it is not often something can hit me with a wallop. The Borrowed surprised me 6 times! And I think that says a lot.
From award-winning Hong Kong writer Chan Ho-kei, The Borrowed tells the story of Kwan Chun-dok, a Hong Kong detective who rises from constable to senior inspector over the span of several decades, from the 1960s to the present day, and becomes a legend in the force, nicknamed “the Eye of Heaven” by his amazed colleagues. Divided into six sections told in reverse chronological order — each of which covers an important case in Kwan’s career and takes place at a pivotal moment in Hong Kong history — the novel follows Kwan from his experiences during the Leftist Riot in 1967, when a bombing plot threatens many lives; the conflict between the HK Police and ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) in 1977; the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989; the Handover in 1997; and the present day of 2013, when Kwan is called on to solve his final case, the murder of a local billionaire, while Hong Kong increasingly resembles a police state. Along the way we meet Communist rioters, ultraviolent gangsters, stallholders at the city’s many covered markets, pop singers enmeshed in the high-stakes machinery of star-making, and a people always caught in the shifting balance of political power, whether in London or Beijing.
Don’t look for elegant literary prose. The writing is as dry as the Sahara and loaded with trite but detailed fluff. Kwan Chun-do is the Sherlock Holmes of Hong Kong. His deduction skills are legendary. Like any Agatha Christie novel, there are red herrings and surreptitious clues placed everywhere, but with clever misdirection you will fail to see them. The big reveals in the last act will make your mouth fall open and your mind go “why the hell didn’t I see that”.
Chan doesn’t just craft 6 detective procedurals revolving around a main character, he also paints a social picture of Hong Kong through decades of pivotal historical moments. Whether it is the Handover or the times of the triads or the underbelly of the city, the pictures painted are always vivid and full of emotional hues.
It helps if you have been to Hong Kong and love the city. Otherwise, I can foresee an unprepared reader would get flustered by the cringe-y literal translations of names and titles, like Candy Tong and Boss-man. For me, having been weaned on Hong Kong’s movies and TVB dramas, I can feel myself being transported to the streets and slums of Mongkok and Sham Shui Po easily, and the gripping scenes come alive.
I particularly enjoyed the last story, which in the beginning bewildered me because the point of view suddenly changed to the first person. The first chapter reads like a history lesson and I had to place my trust in Chan as I soldiered on albeit in a confused manner. It felt like I was running in a thick fog, but gradually it cleared up and the final reveal hit me like a sledgehammer and time stood still. It was just outstanding and I couldn’t have seen it coming in a thousand years. Chan has managed to show how a thin line separates the good from the evil, and the story of Detective Kwan has come full circle. The Borrowed would make an awesome TV series. I hope it happens.