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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Death Notice

Zhou Haohui

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To purchase Death Notice

Title: Death Notice
Author: Zhou Haohui
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 301 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: Death Notice - US
Death Notice - UK
Death Notice - Canada
  • Chinese title: 死亡通知單
  • Translated by Zac Haluza

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Our Assessment:

B : basic -- even simplistic -- in many ways, but with so many pieces and action that it zips along well enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 9/4/2018 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Zhou does a credible job keeping the clues and the complicated plot straight, but clichéd prose (...) may be a problem for some readers. Few will eagerly await the second volume." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Death Notice is the first volume in a trilogy, the beginning of a manhunt for a serial killer with a serious agenda, rather than a conclusive one. The case is such an involuted one that the book nevertheless is packed (over)full with crimes, revelations, and connections -- and it works reasonably well as a first, separate stage of a larger story.
       Death Notice is pure police procedural -- there's barely a nod to the personal lives of the team investigating the crimes, and what family they have remains entirely on the periphery. The focus is entirely on their work, and they're constantly at it, for the single week -- 19 to 25 October, 2002 -- that makes up the span of the action.
       Set in Chengdu, the story begins with forty-eight year-old Sergeant Zheng Haoming -- "an icon within the force" -- determinedly following up leads. He's onto something -- but even he can't imagine how big it is. His investigation, and where it led him, lead the local police, under Captain Han Hao, to focus all their attention on it. And, independently, events and his investigation also brings Captain Pei Tao, of the Longzhou police, into it, with Han then somewhat reluctantly including Pei on what becomes a reconstituted 4/18 team.
       The original 4/18 team was assembled in 1984, in order to deal with some unusual murders that happened then, but never solved the case. Pei was the star of the police academy at the time -- but his promising fast-track career was derailed by the events back then, which is how he wound up in backwater Longzhou. But the mastermind behind the present-day crimes specifically sought him out, sending Pei a letter announcing that the game was on again, and challenging Pei to play along.
       The present-day crimes involve a perpetrator calling himself 'Eumenides', a sort of self-styled executioner of justice. Eumenides announces the punishment of those who, one way or another, escaped justice for their crimes and rights these perceived wrongs, with death sentences. He even sends his victims 'death notices' of warning before killing them, but makes sure there's no possible escape. Even when the police are now ready for him, forewarned of who the next victim will be and the day s/he will be dispatched, Eumenides shows great resourcefulness in still carrying out his sentences.
       The past haunts the present case. Pei's role in the horrific deaths of eighteen years ago -- and a game he played with a classmate at the academy, a sort of battle of (justice-)wits, back then -- obviously have some bearing on what is going on in the present day. There's also the lone survivor from back then -- horribly disfigured as a consequence of what happened --, someone the investigators keep turning to, who seems to hold some keys to the truth behind what happened.
       A case from Captain Han's past also hangs over the present-day one, as does a huge drug bust that took place just shortly before the terrible event of eighteen years earlier. In each case, things turn out not to have been quite as initially thought: from a small time discrepancy Pei realizes he missed eighteen years ago to the circumstances of Han's case from when he was just starting out, they all have a bearing on the present-day case
       Eumenides is rather too much of a super-criminal. Several of his killings are described over the course of the novel, some as they unfold, and they are incredibly -- arguably ridiculously -- elaborate -- and so well planned that he doesn't leave a clue behind, save those that he specifically plants for the police. It's not exactly a wild goose chase, but Eumenides maintains the upper hand throughout, stringing the police carefully along.
       Zhou sticks to basics, especially in his bare-bones writing; on the first page of the action, there's already a two line paragraph that has Zheng Haoming sprint, dash, and dart ..... There's very little character development: the characters are defined almost entirely by their present-day roles, with only Pei getting a bit of a more personal backstory rooted in his relationships with those involved in what happened while he was at the police academy. Zhou also relies on a few peculiar tics too much, notably the insistence of characters to speak one-on-one, revealing information to only specific people; here as elsewhere, he pushes too hard to create heightened senses of drama. And there are some very odd aspects to the investigation itslef -- most notably why there isn't much more interest in the reasons for the eighteen-year-gap between events.
       Of course, part of the interest in Death Notice is that it is the rare (in English) example of a phenomenally successful work of crime fiction from China. But in most ways, Death Notice is a pretty traditional over-the-top thriller -- notably in Eumenides' elaborate stagings, including of his previous victims --; it could be from anywhere (and obviously borrows heavily from American thrillers).
       Some of the Chinese elements have apparently been introduced or adapted specifically for English-speaking readers in the translation -- notably the locale, which is apparently not Chengdu in the original. The occasional explanation -- mooncakes aren't presented simply as such, but described as: "round pastries stuffed with fillings of red bean paste, locus seed paste, and egg yolk", something obviously added for the benefit of foreign readers -- might seem superfluous, but aren't too awkward. As to other Chinese specifics, there are some of interest, such as the powerful 'Mayor Deng', who rose up through corruption and is now: "probably more powerful than Chengdu's actual mayor", but there's only a limited sense of Chinese specifics that might differentiate what happens, and how it is investigated, from any similar case abroad. Set in 2002 -- and with significant parts set in 1984 -- there's surprisingly little that evokes these times or suggests how things have changed in the meantime, beyond some forensic capabilities (not that they're of much help to the police ...).
       Death Notice is, in most senses, a pretty basic thriller. The writing is about as straightforward as it gets, and the action, while elaborate, feels very staged (though admittedly that's part of the point, of what Eumenides is doing). It's hardly fair to judge the novel on its realism, given how over the top aspects of it are, but Zhou strains a bit with some of the explanations and occurrences. But then, so much is going on -- and so much from the past plays a part in the present -- that keeping up with all of it keeps the reader's head busy and spinning ..... And while most of the twists aren't entirely unexpected, right down to how the final killing plays out, there are at least a lot of them.
       Certainly far-fetched, and thin on the personal side, Death Notice is nevertheless satisfactorily busy and meaty enough to make for a decent light read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 June 2018

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Death Notice: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Zhou Haohui (周浩暉) was born in 1977.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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