Taipei Noir: Chi Wei-Jan's 'Private Eyes'

Photo of Culture Trip
9 July 2019

Deliciously dark, charmingly hilarious and winner of almost every major Taiwan literary award, Chi Wei-Jan’s PRIVATE EYES was a sensation in Taiwan in 2011, a brilliant literary detective novel in which a failed-academic-turned-sleuth tries to make sense of the absurdity of modern city life, and to prove his innocence in a series of murders.

Wu Cheng, a disillusioned playwright and theatre director in his mid-forties, quits his job as a college professor. He is angry at Taipei, he is angry at himself, and most of all, he is angry at his anger. He has left his wife, and he has left behind his circle of theatre friends after getting blind drunk and insulting them at a dinner thrown in his honour. In short, he is having a breakdown.

Wu’s response is to move to Liuzhangli, a district in Taipei he fondly describes as the “Dead Zone” because the only thing to thrive there are the funeral businesses. There he sets up shop as the first and only private detective in Taiwan. He is not technology-savvy, and his CV is embarrassingly short. His only marketing strategy is to print a stack of business cards, his only training comes in the form of years spent reading detective fiction and hours spent in cafes observing passersby. All he has to rely on is his obsessive attention to detail honed through years of neurosis and depression.

His first client is Mrs Lin, an attractive middle-aged woman concerned that her teenage daughter has suddenly taken against her husband. It sounds easy enough: either her husband has sexually molested the girl, or her daughter has somehow stumbled upon a clandestine affair between her father and another woman. Wu decides to follow the otherwise seemingly remarkably boring Mr Lin to discover exactly what it is he is hiding. The clues, however, are unforthcoming; his daily walks are just that, daily walks, and he only ever seems to email fellow plant obsessives from his Arbor Club.

That is, until one day Wu sees him getting onto a bus, before stepping off not two stops later and getting into a BMW driven by a young woman. Enlisting the help of a foulmouthed and streetwise taxi driver, they follow the car to a hotel on the outskirts of the city. This must be the affair he has been looking for. But another car pulls into the ‘love motel’ shortly after and before long the two cars have pulled out and set off again. Something doesn’t seem quite right. It doesn’t take Wu long to discover that the young woman works at a local health clinic. The more Wu thinks about it, the more unlikely an affair it seems; surely they are taking too many precautions? And their visits to these ‘love motels’ are perilously short, even for a middle-aged man.

Another examination of Mr Lin’s emails reveals the code the pair employ for arranging their meet-ups, disguised as emails about rare species of trees. Wu opts instead to follow the young woman, Miss Chiu, and then to confront her. Scared, she reveals the truth, a scam that the pair have concocted to cheat money out of the health insurance system. Mr Lin’s daughter bumped into them one day while out with her high school boyfriend.

Having solved the case, Wu’s attention turns to a series of murders that his policeman friend, Big Chen, reveals to him in confidence. The media is yet to pick up on the stories, but there have been two murders close to where Wu lives in the Dead Zone, and the police believe they are linked. This sounds like just the kind of thing that Wu believes he should be working on, and it is to this he now turns, that is, when not taking romantic trips with his new love interest, the former Mrs Lin, now divorced. The thought of a Taiwanese serial killer fascinates him. What makes a serial killer? And why hasn’t there been one before in Taiwan?

But suddenly Wu is called in by the police for questioning in connection with the murders. His image has been captured on the ever-present CCTV cameras with two of the victims. Obviously Wu hasn’t committed the crimes, he has no memory of even talking to these people, and yet he is the prime suspect. But could his history of depression-related neurosis be the explanation? Wasn’t he mentally unstable when he jumped onto the table and insulted all his friends at his party? Not only do they have CCTV footage, but they also have two witnesses that claim to have seen him at the scenes of the crimes, wearing his distinctive black fisherman’s hat. He’s going to have to tell the police of his secret rendezvous with Mrs Lin if the police are going to be convinced that he has an alibi for at least one of the murders.

Wu Cheng becomes a man obsessed. He needs to prove his innocence and find out who is behind the murders. Not only that, he needs to find out why someone would want to frame him. But it will be a battle, against the senior policeman who is convinced of his guilt, and the media who are even quicker to assume it. As details of his problems with depression are leaked to the press by the police, Wu’s only way of convincing them to allow him to help with the investigation is to hire Taiwan’s most ruthless media lawyer. His reputation may be in tatters, but as long as the police will let him prove the holes in the case against him are too large to be credible, he will survive.

But who is the killer? And how can he be so good at dressing up as and acting like Wu Cheng? A vital clue comes when Zhang, a fellow playwright, makes contact. Can Wu help him find the whereabouts of a young playwright, Su Hongzhi? Uninterested in the case however, Wu declines, more interested in the picture that is emerging of Taiwan’s first serial killer.

By now five murders have taken place and the police are desperate to find a connection. Not only is the murderer seemingly drawing some kind of symbol with his careful plotting of the locations of the murders, but he has also left a clue in Wu’s home; a folded-down page of a Buddhist scripture. As Wu continues to look for someone who might hold a grudge against him, and who would have the acting skills to be able to produce such a convincing costume so as to fool witnesses and CCTV footage, Wu is reminded by his friend Zhang that he once snubbed Su Hongzhi when he came to Wu for writing advice. As the police investigate further it becomes clear that Su Hongzhi could well be their man.

A picture emerges through interviews with family and friends of an unusually cerebral young man with a fanatical passion for Buddhism, and the work of a certain playwright by the name of Wu Cheng. This is a man on a mission to convert Wu, to make him see salvation in the ways of the Buddha. All that remains is to find Su and stop him. What of the young woman who moved into a flat opposite Wu in the Dead Zone around the same time as he did? Could Su be that good at acting? Could the murderer have been that close all along?

Part detective story and part social satire, PRIVATE EYES is a literary tour-de-force that will have you turning the pages until the very end. It is a meditation on the nature of serial killers and an insightful study of the crime genre, but most of all it is about the anxiety, passion, and craziness of urban life.

About the Author

Chi Wei-Jan (b.1954) holds a Ph.D. in English Literature of University of Iowa. He is Professor of Drama and Theatre at National Taiwan University. He is a successful playwright and has written and produced many plays, including MIT: Mad in Taiwan (2008), The Mahjong Game Trilogy (1997-2007), Reel Murders (2005), Utopia, Ltd (2001) and One Bed, Four Players (1999). He has also published several books of essays including Seriously Playful (2004) and Misunderstanding Shakespeare (2008). Private Eyes is his first novel. It became a bestseller in Taiwan and went through five printings in only two months.

Text and images courtesy of The Grayhawk Agency.

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