A Yi’s A Perfect Crime is one of those novels that is certain to draw comparisons to Crime and Punishment or American Psycho. As a first person narrative by a killer who kills for reasons other than greed, love, jealousy or any of the other simple motivations that give us comfort, it falls into that small collection of books that feature murderers whose crimes are presumed to reflect the alienating forces of society.
None of these stories would be interesting if narrated by investigators or any third party. Their intensity and their attraction lie in the conceit that we are entering the mind of a murderer, seeing why they do what they do. In this, I think A Yi is perhaps more successful than either Dostoyevsky or Bret Easton Ellis because despite the efforts of the Chinese courts to impose reason on this murder, he really allows it to be about nothing other than boredom and the thrill of being a murderer. This nameless killer has no moral theory to justify his act, he is just bored.
Like many unpopular high school kids, A Yi’s murderer assuages his feelings of rejection and loneliness with contempt. Who would want to be friends with those people anyway? He is bored, he wants more from life, excitement, the thrill of the chase, so he resolves to kill Kong Jie, the one classmate who is friendly and sympathetic. He argues there is a purity in choosing her, because she is such a good person. That may be a self aggrandizing explanation as it is more likely she was the only person he could persuade to come to his home.
And of course he kills her, goes on the run and is terribly frustrated by the incompetence of the police efforts to capture him. At times, it seems almost farcical. Where is the thrill when no one is close to catching him? He even goes to the police station to charge his phone. Eventually, with diligent efforts on his part, he is caught, there is a trial and there we see the desperate efforts by those who represent society as a whole to find a reason for the murder. This is all too human. We do not want to accept that people kill for the thrill of it. We want there to be some childhood trauma, some slight, some need, some reason, no matter how tenuous. We want to know why.
A Perfect Crime is a Chinese novel by a Beijing writer and it is his first work to be translated and published in English. In some ways it seems quaint, this need by the police and the court to understand the motivation, their shock and revulsion that someone would murder out of boredom. Here in the United States, we are inured to that kind of perpetrator. Leopold and Loeb were shocking but that’s eighty years ago. When our narrator is disappointed there is a bigger wanted poster for a man who killed seventeen people, he sounds just like most of the far too long list of killers who kill for excitement and celebrity. They are common as dirt.
This is one of those books that is written with a fast, propulsive prose that keeps you reading. For all its grim subject matter and brutality, there are moments of with and humor, even a bit of slapstick when the killer, fleeing police does a classic “he went that away” sort of misdirection. It is short, which makes it something you can finish in one bite if you have a couple hours to read. That is good, because it is discomfiting to be in the head of someone so callous and enraged. The narrator is observant of people, seems to have a keen insight at times. He is interesting even while being morally repugnant.
I cannot say I enjoyed A Perfect Crime, but I don’t think A Yi wrote it for anyone to enjoy. It is a book that asks us to think about society, about why we produce these monsters. Given the rate at which we do it here in the US, it’s a good question.
A Perfect Crime was provided by LibraryThing which holds a monthly drawing for review copies of recent releases.