A Perfect Crime is a thriller as well as a novel of ideas. Its setting is somewhere in contemporary provincial China. The novel tells the story of an anonymous male teenager who commits a brutal but apparently motiveless murder; the victim is his female school friend, Kong Jie. The events leading up to and following the crime resemble a game of cat-and-mouse in which there are no winners, only losers.
The anonymous murderer represents disaffected youth. He feels no bond with anyone except himself, not even his father or his mother, and he is shunned by his school mates. The only one to show any sympathy for him is the victim, who is both “anxious” to help and “loyal” (34). This proves to be her downfall. The first-person narrator remarks: “I was miserable, because I knew now I would kill her. Because I could” (34). No one else was sufficiently close to him. As Kong Jie walks up the stairs to the murderer’s room, he reflects: “she was letting me kill her. It wasn’t my decision to make. She was the one in charge, walking in front of me, leading me up the stairs towards her death” (49).
The raw brutality of the murder is shocking, leaving the reader with little sympathy for the murderer. Emotional traction only comes when the murderer is caught and he is forced to interact more fully with others. It is not clear to the reader if the narrator’s own disaffection is intended to be philosophical or psychological: is it symptomatic of the universal “human condition” or the isolated and inevitable product of a dysfunctional society?
At the same time, the thoughts of the murderer are expressed in a metaphorical language that adds resonance. These are among the finest passages in the novel. A case in point is the murderer’s reflections on time as he flees the police:
I ran at the edge of time itself. Time had to me always felt sticky; the past was the present, the present was the future, yesterday, today and tomorrow were one boundless, mashed-up whole. But now it was an arrow shooting out in front, a point out from which it fired. It was bright, brave, fearless. In the diabolical light of the sun, it pierced through all possible futures, burned up into a black slag heap of the past. It smelt like a cow condensed into one piece of beef jerky, every bead of sweat suspended in the air collected into one (91).
During the description of the interrogation, the narrator directly addresses the reader, assuring the latter that he is not likely to be believed: “you won’t believe me” (124), he claims. And for many readers this is likely to be the case. As the murderer sits in his cell he again philosophises about time and its “infinite embrace” that keeps “leaning towards me” (150). Even when the murderer reflects on his father’s cancer and his “slow demise” (150), the reader feels little sympathy, and is unmoved by the tears that gather in the murderer’s eyes. While the murderer does admit to regretting killing Kong Jie, the statement that follows precludes any sympathy on the part of the reader: “if I hadn’t committed a murder so intolerable to our hypocritical society, what would have been the point?” (172). We never really find out why the teenager murders Kong Jie. At the end of the novel, the narrator reminds us that the original murder plan was simple, consisting of four parts: “Purpose: Relief; Method: Escape; Technique: Murder; Funds: Ten grand” (210). We are asked to believe in the sequence of events, they are part of the murderer’s history; the final word “goodbye” (210), however, brings no regret, rather relief.
A Perfect Crime is not perfect. While the more philosophical passages on, for example, time do provide light relief and give food for thought, the story as a whole lacks human sympathy. This, however, is also part of its contribution as it exposes some of the rawer aspects of provincial Chinese society lacking in other Chinese detective novels such as Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series, which focuses on Shanghai in the 1990s. While A Perfect Crime does not quite live up to its reviewer’s promise: “With exceptional tonal control, A Yi steadily reveals the psychological backdrop that enables us to make sense of the story’s dramatic violence and provides chillingly apt insights into a country on the cusp of enormous social, political and economic change” (inside front cover) it does nonetheless provide a rare glimpse of Chinese provincial society, raising an important question: “will China remain a divided society, where progress is restricted to the city, and where crime takes on a new guise as new opportunities present themselves?” Detective fiction has a unique ability to illuminate such an important question as it focuses on good and evil, crime and perpetrator, detective and victim.
Jane Mattisson Ekstam is an Associate Professor of English, Kristianstad University, Sweden. Jane has contributed to several issues of Mystery Readers Journal.