Bad Kids by Zijin Chen
Originally published in 2014 as 隐秘的角落
English translation first published in 2022
Yan Liang #2
Preceded by The Untouched Crime
One beautiful morning, Zhang Dongsheng pushes his wealthy in-laws off a remote mountain.
It’s the perfect crime. Or so he thinks.
For Zhang did not expect that teenager Chaoyang and his friends would catch him in the act. An opportunity for blackmail presents itself and the kids start down a dark path that will lead to the unravelling of all their lives.
Thirteen year old Zhu Chaoyang lives a pretty sad and isolated life. Though he is a brilliant student, always at the top of his class, he is bullied and put down by his wealthier classmates. His homelife is also difficult as his mother works a poorly paid job at a national park that leaves him alone for days at a time while his father, having abandoned them when he was two, devotes all his attention and money on his new wife and their young daughter.
He is surprised one day when he encounters a friend from his early childhood who has come in search of him. Ding Hao, who had abruptly disappeared from his life years earlier, turns up on his doorstep with a girl nicknamed Pupu in search of shelter after the pair stole money and fled from the abusive orphanage where they had been living. You might expect that their revelations that they both had parents who were murderers might be red flags for Chaoyang but instead he is just grateful to finally have friends.
After acquiring a beat-up old camera, Chaoyang and his new buddies decide to pay a visit to the national park where his mother works to take some photos and videos. While they are there they witness what seems to be an accident where an elderly couple sat on a wall tragically fell to their death. When they watch back the video of the incident however they are shocked to see them toppled over deliberately. While Chaoyang’s instincts are to turn the video over to the police, he realizes that to do so would result in his two friends being sent back to the orphanage. Instead the trio develops an alternative plan to blackmail the killer, hoping that they can use the payoff to secure their futures…
Bad Kids is the second of Zijin Chen’s Yan Liang novels featuring a retired policeman turned college professor to be translated into English. If, like me, you are not a fan of jumping into series in the middle however you can rest assured that doing so here will not disadvantage you as he has very little involvement for much of the story which mostly treats him as an observer, making this read like a standalone.
After a short but punchy opening in which we follow Zhang Dongshen as he carries out the crime Chaoyang and his friends will witness, brutally dispatching his wealthy in-laws in a staged accident, our focus shifts to follow Chaoyang and his new friends. While we will return to Dongshen and have occasional interludes with Yan Liang, our focus is really on these young characters and the decisions they make in response to this initial crime.
Chen structures their story as an evolving series of problems and opportunities, exploring the ripples caused by the children’s witnessing of that crime. The chapters in which the trio discuss their options and make their decisions feel convincing, particularly given what we learn of the two visitors’ backgrounds, and I think their discussions do a great job of illustrating each of those three characters, their personalities and instincts as well as the power dynamics between them. Those relationships change subtly over the course of the novel but these early chapters do a good job of establishing a baseline.
One of the other things that I think is particularly effective in those early chapters is the way Chen depicts the trio having to figure out how to practically achieve their goal. How, for instance, do you negotiate with someone who was prepared to kill their own in-laws? Here, once again, Chen’s writing feels really quite organic as they are forced to reconsider and rework parts of their plan as they get a better gauge of their target and what he is capable of.
That game of wits between the murderer and his young blackmailers is a large part of the book’s appeal and produces much of the novel’s tension. The decision to tell the book in the third person allows us little insights into Zhang Dongshen’s thoughts, letting us know some of his secret thoughts and plans. This not only provides us with additional insights into his character but it also reminds us that no matter what he is saying, he remains dangerous and has little intention of just giving in, building our anticipation as we wonder whether the trio will lose their control over him.
While Zhang Dongshen’s crime provides a starting point for the novel’s exploration of these characters and its discussion of desperation and criminality, before long Chen supplies us with further crimes to explore. Unlike the first murder, which happens so quickly with barely any description, the subsequent crimes feel more immediate and – frankly – cruel. There is one that more than earns the book its title and left me feeling really rather shaken. While the chapters related to that incident did not make for easy reading, I think the author does depict the situation quite realistically and I suspect that part of the reason it did upset me was because it feels quite credible.
This event, along with the others in the book, explores the children’s characters and personalities in interesting ways. We observe as the power dynamics within the trio shift and change, also seeing their priorities and concerns shift as well. As a character study I found it understated but very effective, though I quickly realized that I had abandoned hope of finding anyone I liked among the cast of characters. We may certainly empathize with the children’s situations but bad decision-making abounds.
Chen neatly structures his plot to have these situations snowball as pressures grow and situations become more complex. He juggles multiple plot strands with ease, tying them together very effectively as these problems seem to feed into each other, making the idea of a clean resolution seem quite unthinkable (and that sidesteps the question of whether we would really want such an ending).
As interesting as the plotting can be however, I should stress that for much of the book it is striking how poorly the various investigations are handled. In almost every case the most obvious suspect seems to evade suspicion, sometimes on the flimsiest of excuses. To give one example, there is a murder that characters assume that someone has a solid alibi for where there is one rather obvious way that they might be guilty. While the details of how that murder was managed are quite clever (and the reveal of that pays off all the expectation built in the preceding chapters very nicely), the police do not come out of this story looking particularly competent.
This brings us to the conclusion which does feel suitably dramatic, powerfully playing off the themes that had been carefully developed throughout the novel. There are some interesting and satisfying choices made in that conclusion which realize ideas and themes explored in the preceding chapters but perhaps the bravest choice is Chen’s decision to leave the resolution a little incomplete, leaving at least a few questions unanswered. It’s the sort of ending that could make for rich fodder for book club discussions.
Yet while Chen’s exploration of his themes and these characters can be quite compelling and complex, the crimes depicted here are seedy, realistic and relatively straightforward. This is, of course, understandable given the age and inexperience of the protagonists but I wished I would see a little more ingenuity and cunning from Zhang Dongshen, who had supposedly been something of a prodigy as a student, to really test them.
At its best Bad Kids is a fascinating read, particularly in its rich and multi-layered exploration of Zhu Chaoyang’s character and the way this experience changes him. The book occasionally made for uncomfortable reading and I could understand readers struggling with its cast of unlikeable characters, but I found the journey they take to be worthwhile and I would certainly be curious to go back and investigate the previous novel in this series, The Untouched Crime.
The Verdict: A dark read but a fascinating one. More powerful for its thoughtful character studies than for the crimes it depicts, I found this to be an interesting and sometimes uncomfortable read nonetheless.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? The English translation of this title was published earlier this year in the UK by Pushkin Press for their Vertigo imprint. The ISBN number for this title is 9781782277620. As availability in the United States seems to be limited, I had to order it online from a UK-based bookseller who ship internationally.