Silent Reading: victims and perpetrators, justice and revenge

Give me the rest of the c drama episodes!!!

A body is found in the back alleys of a shabby neighbourhood on the sleazier side of the city. The authorities are pissed because the last thing they need is bad news hogging the frontlines. The case technically comes under the purview of the local police branch, but Luo Wenzhou, captain of Yancheng City’s criminal investigation unit, is dispatched to check things out anyway.

So begins 《默读 mò dú》 (which directly translates as Silent Reading), a novel by the prolific and highly popular BL author Priest. Her work spans a whole bunch of different genres, from wuxia to fantasy, and Silent Reading is a contemporary crime thriller in which multiple cases—from murder to serial kidnapping to hired killers and organised crime—tie together to expose a larger and more chilling conspiracy.

Central to unravelling all these shady plots is Luo Wenzhou and his plucky team of investigators, but there’s one more unlikely participant: a rich playboy. Fei Du is an enigma; he’s young, handsome and debonair, and is constantly messing about with other members of the city’s ultra-wealthy elite youth. By rights, he shouldn’t be paying any attention to tedious and labour intensive criminal investigations, much less taking an active interest. Yet Fei Du constantly shows up at the police station, slowly but surely inserting himself into the investigation unit’s work. He’s clever, cunning and unnervingly good at analysing criminal behaviour, making him a key contributor to the team. But what is he really getting out of this? Suspicious, very, very suspicious… 🤔 🤔 🤔

Complicating (but also providing important context for) all this is Fei Du’s history with Luo Wenzhou and his deputy, Tao Ran. The two cops first met him during their rookie days; back then, he was a troubled teenager who had returned to the family villa for a weekend visit, only to find his mother dead from an apparent suicide. Out of sympathy for the boy—whose wealthy (and, not that the police realised at the time, abusive) father would leave him alone for large stretches of time—the two young men take Fei Du under their wing, but in different ways. Tao Ran is more open about his care, bringing Fei Du home with him from time to time, picking him up from school and making sure he eats. Luo Wenzhou, on the other hand, is our resident tsundere, looking out for Fei Du in secret. It doesn’t help that tension has developed between Luo Wenzhou and Fei Du, since the former was the one to break the news that his mother’s death had been ruled a suicide—a conclusion Fei Du had never accepted. At the beginning of Silent Reading, Fei Du is now an adult, but still can’t meet Luo Wenzhou without bickering or quarrelling, with a long-suffering Tao Ran stuck between his best friend and his (unofficial) younger brother.

Apart from the heinous crimes that the team come up against one after another, it is Luo Wenzhou and Fei Du’s relationship that is most prominent and compelling in Silent Reading. For all their squabbling, both are incredibly quick-witted and are often on the same wavelength, getting each other’s meaning even when other people around them are still struggling to catch up. As they spend more time together solving cases, each gets to see different sides of the other, prompting reflection and even overturning of previous assumptions and misconceptions. Also, as any connoisseur of the “enemies to lovers” trope knows, bickering can very quickly turn into flirting—so what were we to expect from two shameless male coquettes?

It would have been entertaining enough if Silent Reading had just been a whodunnit, but that would also have been too simple. Trauma permeates throughout the narrative and the inner lives of many of the characters. What is justice? What if something terrible happens to you, yet the police or the court aren’t able to give you the answers or the accountability that you seek? Would you take things into your own hands? At what point does our trauma and pain and anger transform us into monsters, growing more and more like the perpetrators whose actions put us on this dark path in the first place? By the end of Silent Reading, we still might not have answers to these questions, but we’d have been taken on an epic journey that has upended the usual binary of victim/perpetrator to show how everyone is capable of being hurt, and of hurting.

Silent Reading is a great story. I must not be the only one who came to this conclusion, because it was adapted to a c drama some years back, starring Fu Xinbo and Zhang Xincheng as the two male leads. After the Chinese authorities tightened their grip on BL, the drama, Justice in the Dark, finally aired on Youku… only to stop after eight episodes. Lots of other changes were made: the drama is set in the future, there’s some new talking point about a growing demographic of people being unable to empathise with other humans, and all the characters names have been subtly altered. For example, Luo Wenzhou, Fei Du and Tao Ran are now Luo Weizhe, Pei Su and Tao Ze. Why? I don’t know. We all know what the source material is. Some lines of dialogue are even exactly the same as the novel. 

I’ve only seen half of the eight Justice in the Dark episodes, and it’s already clear that this is nowhere near enough to cover the entire complicated plot that the novel presents. I really shouldn’t have watched the drama; I knew that it was going to be left incomplete, and knew that was going to annoy me. But I really wanted to see Zhang Xincheng play Fei Du/Pei Su. I knew he’d been cast in the role even before I read the novel, but once I started reading it I had the feeling that he would absolutely rock the role. And he did, he really did. Which actually makes me feel even more pissed now that the show stopped at only eight episodes, for reasons unknown (or at least not known for sure).

Still, it’s not all despair: the novel also got adapted into an audio drama that is much more faithful to the source material than the c drama, and is also brilliantly produced. And there are five seasons of it (about 11 episodes each, I think?) I listened to season 1 when I was in Scotland, and most of season 2 when I was on the plane. I just finished season 3 this morning.

Silent Reading is one of those novels that make me glad that I picked up reading Chinese fiction after so many years of convincing myself that my Chinese was too crappy to attempt any such thing. The audio drama is unfortunately only in Mandarin, and while the drama does come with English subtitles on Youku it’s incomplete. As far as I know, I don’t think there is an official translation of the novel, although I did find an unofficial translation. Who knows, I might just start reading the translation for fun, just to stay a little longer in the world of Luo Wenzhou and Fei Du.