Death Notice: Review

Deputy Entertainment Editor Julie Crowley reviews the first instalment of China’s best-selling crime trilogy.

“The law doesn’t bring justice. The powerful and influential can break rules however they please, and the law can’t touch the people who hide in the shadows.”-  Eumenides

Death Notice is the first book in a best-selling Chinese crime trilogy. Following a high-octane police search for a cunning and ruthless serial killer, it’s a fast-paced and unpredictable thriller. No one is safe, and no one can be trusted.

On 18 April 1984, the Vice Commissioner of Chengdu’s criminal police was murdered in his own home. Later that day, two police academy cadets were killed in a fiery explosion caused by a bomb. In both cases the intended victims had been sent a “death notice” warning them of the date of their impending execution for their perceived crimes. These formal notices with eerily perfect calligraphy were sent by a killer who signed themselves “Eumenides” – a name referring to the vengeful female deities of Ancient Greece who punished evildoers. The case was classified at the highest level so as not to cause a public furore. The 4/18 Task Force of elite investigators was formed in an attempt to catch the killer. It was eventually disbanded two years later, having failed to find any leads relating to Eumenides.

Eighteen years later, Sergeant Zheng Haoming, a former member of the original investigation into the murders, is killed while trying to trace the online activity of a user calling themselves “Eumenides.” This anonymous person uses a message forum to ask members of the public to nominate criminals who have escaped justice.  Their purpose is to choose the next victim. Zheng Haoming’s body and an accompanying death notice are discovered by Captain Pei Tao. Pei’s once-promising career was derailed eighteen years ago when he made a fatal error regarding Eumenides’ planted bomb. It led to the deaths of his girlfriend Meng and of his best friend Yuan in the warehouse explosion. He could have possibly prevented this tragedy if he had advised her differently while she attempted to defuse the bomb. Eumenides’ first online message gets thousands of replies, and they soon follow through on their threat.

It quickly becomes apparent that the serial killer has returned – or is this a copycat murderer? The 4/18 Task Force is reformed with new members under the steely gaze of Captain Han Hao. His assistant Yin Jian soon joins the investigation. Captain Xiong Yuan of the Chengdu Special Police Unit is a pragmatic, grizzled policeman. Officer Zeng Rihua, supervisor of digital surveillance, is young and cocky. Captain Pei Tao wants to atone for his past failures. He receives a taunting message from Eumenides, warning him: “Once the overture finishes, the first act must commence. It has been far too long since the overture faded… But the day has finally come.” Mu Jianyun is a perceptive female psychologist who builds a profile of the killer. These characters make up the members of the new task force. The large cast of characters can sometimes get confusing. The members of the task force are listed at the beginning which makes it easier to keep track of the large cast.

There are many other characters, ranging from police officers to businesspeople to criminals. Huang Shaoping is a scavenger who had a near-fatal encounter with the killer eighteen years prior. He was left severely injured as a misfortunate bystander in the explosion. Covered with burns on 75% of his body, he has been left scarred and deformed. He tells Mu that he has some confidential information related to a drugs bust and suicide eighteen years ago that may have a vital link to the killer’s motives. Meanwhile, Captain Han is tormented by the death of his partner in a shootout with two criminals eighteen years ago in Deer Park. Could these seemingly unrelated cases have a hidden connection to the current-day murders?

A mixture of Hannibal Lecter, John Doe from Se7en, and Light Yagami from Death Note, Eumenides is always two steps ahead of the police. The character has echoes of the real-life Zodiac Killer who left taunting messages to the police that boasted of his crimes and attempted to justify his motives. The killer is an expert in bomb construction, hacking, and hand-to-hand combat. It seems that he can predict their every move. Eumenides sends a death notice to his next intended victim: a wealthy businesswoman who killed a pedestrian in a hit and run but escaped jail time because her diplomat husband had powerful connections. The new Task Force surround her with plainclothes police officers and set a trap for the killer, but they underestimate his ingenuity. Eumenides leads the police in an elaborate game, taunting them with death notices for his intended victims while they desperately try to track him down before he strikes. Their attempts to track the killer’s online activity fail because they expertly cover up their digital footprint. They manipulate others into following orders while watching from the shadows. The task force members have to work together in order to bring them to justice, but their relationships become increasingly strained later on as suspicions mount. The killer gets hold of information only known to the police – is a corrupt officer leaking information?

The novel poses interesting questions about justice and morality. Rich people such as the corrupt, drug-dealing millionaire businessman Deng Hua escape consequences for their actions. Wealthy people can buy their way out of prison sentences. In other cases, criminals escape justice due to failures of the police. Eumenides acts as judge, jury and executioner for people who committed crimes but escaped justice. The investigation into the murders leads to the uncovering of drug dealing, police corruption, bribery and deception. It reveals corruption at the highest levels of the police force. Some people are eager for the opportunity to dole out rough justice to those who escape consequences for their criminal actions. The killer has a twisted sense of morality, justifying the horrific murders by claiming they are for the good of society:  “Filthy souls inhabit this world. The law should be a tool for cleansing society, but the law is weak. People commit crimes, but too often they fall outside the law’s jurisdiction.” The Task Force tries increasingly risky and dangerous strategies in their attempts to catch Eumenides. The body count rises, and the police suspect that they have met their match in this fiendishly clever murderer.

According to an interview with the author by the New York Times in June 2018, literature in China is less censored in comparison to the internet, television and cinema, which are more heavily fettered by China’s draconian censorship laws. Chinese authors still sometimes have to make changes to their books to remove content that the Government disapproves of. Zhou told the Times that “…you have no way of knowing where the line is.” A good editor has the job of making changes so that novels can get past the censors. The translation is generally excellent, though as noted by the New York Times there is a puzzling and unnecessary change in location from Yangzhou and Nanjing (cities in Jiangsu province) to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. This editorial decision was apparently made because Sichuan is more well-known abroad: it is most famous for its pandas and its spicy cuisine.

The cultural differences are fascinating. The investigation leads to disparate areas in China, from classy, high-tech offices and airport lounges to a grotty flat in “Cockroach Alley” and a disturbing discovery in an abandoned mine. A notable element is the lack of firearms in comparison to American crime fiction. The police have guns, but they are very rare among the general populace. The possibility of Eumenides committing a long range shooting for his next attack is dismissed by police because it is near-impossible for anyone to obtain a sniper rifle in China. Two police officers were caught by surprise when they realised that two knife-wielding criminals were carrying concealed firearms.  The few occasions where shots are fired have greater impact on the story. Eumenides’ preferred methods of murder are stabbing and explosives. He doesn’t use a gun because they are difficult to obtain in the black market and are traceable.

This trilogy is the best-selling crime series in China to date. An online series based on the novels has received 2.4 billion views, and a Hong Kong-based movie version titled Death Notify went into production in April 2018. Death Notice is a fascinating and engrossing novel. The story is unpredictable, with many twists and turns. Doubleday has optioned the second and third parts of the trilogy, but they have not yet been translated. Future translations depend on the market performance of the book in English-speaking territories. I would highly recommend this book, although I must warn that it contains gory and violent scenes. I hope that the remaining books will be translated; the first book ends on a sequel hook that promises further thrills.