Second Sister, by Chan Ho-Kei

Trigger warning for suicide.

Chan Ho-Kei’s astonishingly good Second Sister (fluidly translated by Jeremy Tiang) breaks a lot of rules. It doesn’t always play fair with the reader because the detective not only reluctantly explains things to the narrator, he always leaves things out. There are places where the plot bogs down in tech-y conversations that reminded me of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. But there are so many good and great things about this novel that I forgave all of its problems. I have never read a mystery/thriller novel that contains so many brilliant twists, turns, and reversals. Second Sister is almost like three novels in one.

Nga-Yee is the last living member of her family by the time Second Sister opens. Her father was killed in a work accident years earlier. A year before the book begins, her mother passes away from cancer. Second Sister commences with Nga-Yee receiving the news that her sister has just committed suicide. Nga-Yee is dumbfounded. She knows that her sister has been struggling in the wake of a sexual assault and internet trolling, but she never would have thought that her sister would kill herself. She needs answers. The only clue she has that her sister might have been driven to take her own life is the only handle of the person who posted an accusation that Nga-Yee’s sister framed an innocent man and kicked off months of harassment. When the online name turns out to be untraceable through conventional means, Nga-Yee is sent to a mysterious man known only as N. She is told that N is the only person who can take her case.

Second Sister really starts to gain traction when Nga-Yee badgers N into taking her case. At first, N tells her that the case is too simple for him. After a few days of Nga-Yee staking out his sty of an apartment, N gives in. Suddenly, he tells Nga-Yee that the case fascinates him. And what a case it turns out to be! I don’t want to give anything away, but the crimes at the heart of Second Sister are mysteries wrapped in enigmas tangled up in riddles. Best of all—at least for me—there are ethical dilemmas at every turn. I love mysteries that ask the client or the detective or whoever the protagonist is to make impossible decisions. The biggest dilemma Nga-Yee has to face is, what does she want from this investigation? Many of the crimes N uncovers are not actually in Hong Kong’s criminal code, because the law hasn’t caught up with many of the heinous things people can do with the internet. Does Nga-Yee want revenge? If so, will it make up for her sister’s death?

I’ve been thinking about Second Sister, Nga-Yee, and the marvelously curmudgeon of a detective, N, ever since I finished the book last night. I still feel like I’m catching up to N’s brilliant mind and his mastery of social engineering. I will definitely recommend Second Sister to mystery fans, provided they will be okay with the grittier aspects of this novel. (Thankfully, most of the really horrible stuff happens off the page.) This is the most original novel—let alone mystery novel—I’ve read in a long time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley and Edelweiss, for review consideration.

4 thoughts on “Second Sister, by Chan Ho-Kei

  1. I’ve been looking for some authors from China to help expand my reading horizons. This one sounds well worth reading. I assume it’ set in Hong Kong? In what period does it take place?


  2. Pingback: The One with the Hong Kong Hacker | Smithereens

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