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DEATH NOTICE
by Zhou Haohui and Zac Haluza, trans.
Doubleday, June 2018
320 pages
$26.95
ISBN: 0385543328


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In the ancient Greek playwright Euripides' tragedy The Eumenides, the final part of his tragic trilogy The Oresteia, the Erinyes, or Three Fates, were first called "the Eumenides." Translated literally as "the kind" or "the gracious," the vengeful Eumenides of the Oresteia are so frightening they cannot be called by a less flattering name. At the same time, there might be a place for the actions they inspire in the world of the Oresteia, which is characterized by injustice human and divine.

A similar clash between vengeance and injustice pervades the extremely popular Chinese crime novelist Zhou Haohui's DEATH NOTICE (2014), in which a mysterious serial killer taunts the Chengdu police with letters pre-announcing his murders, and is known only by the nom de guerre "Eumenides." Especially frightening is Eumenides' use of the internet to crowd-source his list of targets. Anonymous members of the general public collectively decide which unconvicted criminals, bribe-takers, rapists, and elite murderers need vigilante erasure.

Meanwhile, the police unit assembled to stop Eumenides—a troubled, engaging group of comrades who patrol the streets of Chengdu, the industrious capital of the Sichuan Province—try to prevent several such murders, but, horrifyingly, end up tricked into accidentally committing them. One officer, Pei Tao, is haunted by the murder of his police-academy girlfriend back in 1984, and seeks vengeance of his own—while being suspected by some colleagues of being Eumenides. This is a bit of a crime novel cliché, and, to be honest, some of the other characters are also clichés. There is the older, put-upon, ultimately stoical team leader, Captain Han, and the obligatory sole female member of the police team, the profoundly attractive research criminologist Ms. (why not Dr?) Mu. And as in some other thrillers, the greatest danger the comrades face is each other's potential suspicion.

In DEATH NOTICE, these are survivable flaws. Riveting and dynamic, Zhou's novel is also topical, perhaps surprisingly so given it and its internet-based dramatization's phenomenal success in mainland China. Bribery and corruption are problems. The Western media has recently reported upon affluent Chinese drivers literally getting away with second-degree manslaughter after killing pedestrians. There is a sense that—as in many other countries—there is a separate justice system for the socioeconomic elite. This might seem particularly unjust in the People's Republic of China, a state historically founded on the idea that there should be no socioeconomic elite ever again. In this context, Eumenides becomes, if not sympathetic, then at least a provocateur of badly needed political change.

Zac Haluza's translation is accessible and presents a Chengdu society that is familiar rather than exotic. Finally, the reader of DEATH NOTICE should prepare to be hooked, because it is only the first part of a trilogy—like Euripides' Oresteia. DEATH NOTICE ends with the mystery of Eumenides' identity only partially solved, and Eumenides very much alive and active. I can't wait to read Haluza's translation of the next book in Zhou's trilogy.

§ Rebecca Nesvet is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. She specializes in nineteenth-century literature. https://uwgb.academia.edu/RebeccaNesvet

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, May 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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