Chinese hit crime novel, Death Notice, breaks into English market

Zhou Haohui, who wrote Death Notice, feels readers all over the world like mystery and suspense. Death Notice, the first of a trilogy, started life as an online novel. Far left: Chinese designer Xander Zhou sent a male model with a fake baby bump dow
Zhou Haohui, who wrote Death Notice, feels readers all over the world like mystery and suspense.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Zhou Haohui, who wrote Death Notice, feels readers all over the world like mystery and suspense. Death Notice, the first of a trilogy, started life as an online novel. Far left: Chinese designer Xander Zhou sent a male model with a fake baby bump dow
Death Notice, the first of a trilogy, started life as an online novel. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Death Notice, about a killer resurfacing after 18 years to murder a police sergeant, is now on sale in the United States

SHANGHAI • After Zhou Haohui engineered a way to get out of his previous job, China took notice of his writing skills.

He is moving on to the next chapter of his soaring career. Death Notice, the first book of his trilogy, was released in the United States last Tuesday and will be in stores in Britain this week.

American publisher Doubleday hopes it will vault him into the ranks of other contemporary Chinese novelists - such as Qiu Xiaolong, He Jiahong and A Yi - who have reached a global audience with stories from China's criminal underbelly.

It is a success story that started when Zhou had an unsatisfying job teaching engineering at a university outside Beijing in 2007. He began publishing online novels.

These books - a trilogy about a police hunt for a vengeful killer - went into print two years later, selling more than 1.2 million copies.

They inspired a serial on a streaming site owned by social media giant Tencent that has been watched 2.4 billion times, according to his agent, China Educational Publications Import & Export.

A feature film went into production in April.

"When you are talking about crime - criminal cases, the police in large cities, this suspenseful feeling of mystery - I feel that readers all over the world like this kind of thing," Zhou said of his latest plot to conquer the world.

He noted that Martin Scorsese's 2006 film The Departed, which won four Oscars, including best picture, was a remake of the highly regarded 2002 Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, about a police mole. The drama simply shifted to Boston.

In addition to a dozen crime novels, Zhou, 40, has written two books on food, including one on the cuisine of his native region, Huaiyang.

His mild manner seems at odds with the lurid violence of crime novels.

In Death Notice, the killer of two police academy cadets resurfaces after 18 years, this time orchestrating the murder of a revered police sergeant.

Then, as now, the killer fashions himself as an avenger, bringing justice to those whose crimes have gone unpunished.

Zhou acknowledged that the censors had posed problems, forcing him to make changes in his books.

But he said novels tend to get more leeway than movies or content online, which the government polices with greater zeal because that is where more Chinese are spending their time.

The investigation at the heart of Death Notice does hinge on questions of police corruption and the privileges the wealthy in China enjoy - all of which are matters Chinese readers can relate to.

Zhou, who quit his job as a professor in 2012 and returned to his home town Yangzhou, now devotes his creative efforts to producing his own films online, through production company Frog Brothers, which he founded.

He has also begun studying film direction, having been disappointed that the popular serial version of his trilogy turned into a dark comedy.

Producing and directing allow him to control more aspects of the stories he wants to tell, he said.

His first online film project was a psychological thriller, roughly translated as Shuttered Room, about two strangers mysteriously confined in a sealed apartment.

Zhou's taste for the cinematic is clear. The germ of the idea for the trilogy came from a 2006 music video by Taiwanese singer Jay Chou, and the narrative is lean and fast-paced, with little by way of description or excessive ruminations.

Zhou seems part of a generation for whom the boundaries between the written and the visual, the printed word and the image on screen, have blurred, allowing him to glide dexterously from one medium to the next.

He has certainly served notice that the format is not so important.

"I just ask myself: 'What is the best way to tell the story?'"

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2018, with the headline 'Chinese hit crime novel breaks into English market'. Print Edition | Subscribe