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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Bad Kids

Chen Zijin

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To purchase Bad Kids

Title: Bad Kids
Author: Chen Zijin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 332 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Bad Kids - US
Bad Kids - UK
Bad Kids - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Chinese title: 坏小孩
  • Translated by Michelle Deeter

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Our Assessment:

B : clunky writing and a rather simple in too many ways, but nicely turned by the end

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Bad Kids is set in Ningbo, and begins with Zhang Dongshen taking his parents-in-law "for a nice outing" to the local nature park and mountain, Sanmingshan -- only for him to then topple them over the side when no one is looking. It seems like the perfect murder -- but of course it isn't: some kids were taking pictures nearby and, as they would soon discover, they caught him in the act.
       The kids are local top-of-his-class middle-school boy Zhu Chaoyang, and runaways Ding Hao and an eleven-year-old girl called Pupu. Ding Hao used to be a classmate of Zhu Chaoyang's but his parents murdered someone and were executed, after which he was sent to an orphanage; Pupu's father was also executed as a murderer and she befriended Ding Hao at the orphanage. They are now on the run, and turn to Chaoyang for help; since his mother (who happens to work at Sanmingshan) is away, he can let them stay with him at the apartment for a bit.
       The runaways need money if they want to make it on their own, and when they realize what their picture proves they see an opportunity for blackmail. Even the big first hurdle -- figuring out who the perpetrator is -- conveniently practically falls in their lap -- though getting money out of Zhang Dongshen proves a bit more of a challenge, since he claims he doesn't have those kinds of sums handy.
       Indeed, the reason Zhang Dongshen offed his in-laws is because he and his wealthy wife -- who controls pretty much all the family's money -- are having problems, with her wanting a divorce, and Zhang Dongshen wants to secure his position. As his wife -- suspicious about the way her parents died, even though the police agree that it looks like an accident -- realizes and worries: "If I die in an accident, it will be Dongsheng's doing".
       The kids' situation is complicated too, with the runaways having to avoid the authorities. Meanwhile, Zhu Chaoyang struggles with being bullied at school -- and with his father not paying any attention to him, having left Zhu Chaoyang's mother and started a new family. Zhu Chaoyang even has a spoiled brat of a half-sister, who only now comes to learn of his existence -- but Ding Hao and Pupu suggest teaching her a lesson, and when that gets out of hand they have yet more dangerous secrets to keep.
       An odd, wary alliance develops between Zhang Dongshen and the three kids, as he plays for time about getting the money, but also provides the two runaways with a place to stay. The three kids do make sure they're never all alone with him together, and that he remains in the dark about where the camera is, since they know they can't really trust him, but they're willing to give him the benefit of some of their doubts. Ding Hao is a bit simple and trusting in any case, but Pupu is very sharp and determined -- while Zhu Chaoyang mostly seems overwhelmed by what he's gotten himself into; he also seems the most realistic and grounded of the three, not even that interested in the money they think they can extricate from Zhang Dongshen, as he realizes he wouldn't know how to explain it to his mother.
       The police don't get very far in their various investigations as things proceed, but they get some outside help, from an old-time insider, Yan Liang, now a "PhD supervisor in the Mathematics Department", who had previously worked for the police and taught classes in things like criminal logic. Yan has a personal interest in the Zhang Dongshen case, as Zhang Dongshen was both his favorite math student and married Xu Jing, his niece. Yan is the kind of investigator who: "preferred to do things the proper way -- calmly and rationally". (Bad Kids is the second in what is apparently a trilogy featuring Yan Liang; although the narrative focuses much more on several of the other characters, he does play an important role in the novel -- and, especially, in figuring out the case(s).)
       As the lead investigator sighs late in the story: "When had Ningbo become such a hotspot for violent crime ?" (Chen can't get enough of coïncidences, so of course Captain Ye Jun's daughter is a classmate of Zhu Chaoyang's -- one who tries to get him in trouble at school by accusing him of things he is not responsible for.) The questionable deaths and outright murders keep piling up, until eventually the police come to the realization:

The nine murders were connected somehow. It was incredible.
       Indeed. Chen weaves an intricate (and far-fetched) murder-mystery here, with both a straightforward bad guy -- Zhang Dongshen , who needs to get rid of his wife and relatives before he finds himself left out in the cold -- and three kids with their own issues, two of them the offspring of killers (or at least an accused killer, in Pupu's case), the third basically abandoned by his father. There are way too many way too convenient coïncidences along the way, and the characters -- especially the kids -- act ridiculously naïvely in some of the circumstances, but from the beginning Chen sets a pretty gripping (snow)ball rolling. As unrealistic as much here is, the different occurrences do play well off one another -- though the morality in the novel is rather iffy: there is the occasional: "But it's morally wrong !" but the characters don't seem to have much trouble (or then much guilt about) committing these various acts. Chen heaps a bit much on, heavy-handedly, -- the duty and role of fathers, for one -- and Yan Liang isn't really integrated well into most of the story, but it is all mashed together with enough pace, action, and intrigue to hold the reader's attention -- just.
       Bad Kids is very clunky -- in language as well as plot -- along the way, but Chen does tie things up nicely with one last sort of twist (leading then also to the novel's solid in-Yan's-hands ending), as the novel's opening and closing ideas are a cut above everything else.
       Bad Kids could be called a Chinese penny-dreadful. It is certainly not realistic, but it can hook and then also satisfy, just, the reader who is willing to suspend pretty much any sense of disbelief.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 May 2023

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Chen Zijin (陈紫金) was born in 1986.

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© 2023 the complete review

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