The Untouched Crime by Zijin Chen – by Michelle Deeter

Chen Zijin’s novel The Untouched Crime, translated by Michelle Deeter, was published last year by AmazonCrossing. You can find readers’ comments on the amazon website, and if you scroll down the amazon.co.uk page, you can see that AmazonCrossing made this book available to reviewers on Netgalley. But who better to tell us about the book than the translator herself!

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The Untouched Crime, by Zijin Chen, tr. Michelle Deeter (Amazon Crossing)

It’s a crime novel, a murder mystery set in Hangzhou. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a serial killer on the loose, who leaves a jump rope, a cigarette and a note saying “Come and get me” by each victim. Things get complicated when Luo Wen (Head of Forensics) comes across a young woman stabbing a local thug in self-defense. The thug dies, and for some unknown reason, Luo promises to help her cover up the crime. When the police are struggling to come up with answers, they call in Professor Yan Liang, a criminologist renowned for solving cases like a mathematical equation.

If you like your crime fiction dark and gory, you’ll probably find this book a bit tame. There’s no violence. There’s a gun here and there in the story, but the trigger is never pulled. In China, criminals seldom have guns, for the simple reason that they are very difficult to acquire. Only the police are allowed guns. The Chinese weapon of choice is the sharp knife. So why does the culprit use a jump rope?

There’s no sex either. Instead, there are rich descriptions and charismatic personalities. The young woman, Huiru, is bright and not afraid to speak her mind. She and her brother have a popular restaurant called Chongqing Noodles, and the author describes the dishes (and customers) with relish. One of their customers is Guo Yu, an introverted young man who works in software, who has a crush on her. Again, I don’t want to say too much and spoil the story for you.

It’s a fast-paced novel, with several story lines running through it. As with any murder-mystery, your mind is constantly searching for clues. The original title in Chinese translates literally as “No Evidence”, and with little physical evidence to go on, you find yourself investigating the characters’ behavior, their interactions with each other, and trying to find connections between the story lines. The story is set in China, in the southern city of Hangzhou (famous for the beautiful West Lake). There are probably a few more twists and turns for a non-native reader who’s never lived in a Chinese city and isn’t familiar with everyday life as a Chinese citizen, and from time to time you might wonder “Now why did they do that?” That’s one of the joys of reading fiction in translation – you get to see how other people think and how and why they respond to particular situations.

Translating a novel takes months – this book took me eight months. When I finished the translation, I worked with an editor and a proofreader to make sure the story flowed well and to catch any mistakes. The editing process is essential and I appreciate it when a publisher devotes the time to do a thorough check with an editor. But it does take a lot of negotiation, because I have an attachment to the words I have written, and all major changes need to be checked with the author. Zijin Chen was extremely cooperative, which helped the process a lot. This story features a lot of dialogue, and we had to make some decisions there too. For example, a very everyday exchange in the original Chinese should sound like a very everyday exchange; it shouldn’t sound exotic or extreme. Characters that are well-educated should sound intelligent while characters who get angry easily should say things that are hot-tempered. The editor also picked up on things that could be considered as gender-biased without contributing to the story. For example, in the original Chinese text the police officers state that a young woman would not be capable of stabbing a man to death. To ask whether this particular woman might be capable of the crime is one thing, but to state repeatedly, as if it were fact, that young women are not capable of stabbing a man to death is another thing.

When so many novels from mainland China featuring a women in her twenties focus on getting hitched and having kids, reading about a female lead who is not the least bit concerned about marriage is refreshing. The book stands out for being easy to get into while also giving readers a chance to see how Chinese people live—whether they are ridiculously wealthy or just struggling to get by.

[Written for the GLLI – Paper Republic Collaboration, Feb 2017]

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