The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder: Review and Critique

Amanda Woodard

In the summer of 2021, I read The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder after a TikTok creator recommended it on #BookTok. Published in 2004 but set primarily in 1990 Tokyo, the book follows Grey as she searches for a rare video she believes will depict the most gruesome torture inflicted during the Nanking Massacre. Grey’s journey—on which she becomes a hostess at a host club, moves in with a handsome American, and meets a mysterious gangster—is interspersed with diary entries from 1937, written by the professor who allegedly possesses the videotape in question.

Image taken from Google Reads

I’m a sucker for psychological fiction and horror, but I do have standards. (For example, I didn’t succumb to the hype of Kill Creek by Scott Thomas because the only female main character was flat in all areas except her chest.) I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Devil of Nanking because it nearly lost my attention as I approached the 100-page mark. I am still surprised by how much I continue to think about it: its rich description, its compelling pace in the latter half, the characters made incarnate.

The Nanking Massacre, the central event in the book, is well researched according to the sources Hayder credits in her Acknowledgments section. The main characters (a white woman in her mid-twenties and an elderly Chinese professor) seem fully fleshed out and vulnerable, though the white character more so than the other (due, possibly in part, to the mystery of the work).

The details mentioned in Grey’s flashbacks were vague and riddle-like, which made it difficult to understand their timeline and decipher their contents. Because I was reading this for leisure, I nearly DNF-ed Nanking, but I’m glad I didn’t. After reading the end, it’s now clear why the author chose to obscure certain details.

Danger go vroom is the usual cadence of most psychological thrillers, works that are worthy of the harsh 3.5 star–ratings on Goodreads. However, this book not only “understood the assignment,” as the kids are saying, but it was also lyrical in its depictions, and the dialogue was actually believable.

When the middle of the book suddenly turned into a romance novel, I didn’t mind at all: the tension between Grey and her American roommate (and coworker) had been building, so it seemed like a logical next step. Hayder managed to make the love affair chapters exciting in both a sexy and dangerous way. The interlude chapters—diary entries from 1937, from right before and during the Nanking massacre—kept me grounded and reminded me, This is not a love story.

With the last sixty pages gripped tight in my right hand, I thought, How is Hayder going to pull this off? Not only did she pull off the ending, but she did so in a way I didn’t see coming, in a way that brought the whole plot together and left me with nearly zero follow-up questions. I was surprised and satisfied. I could have smoked a cigarette afterward.

Despite all the good I have to say about The Devil of Nanking, there were a few problematic components that I couldn’t reconcile. Hayder is a white woman who wrote about the tragedy of a culture that she does not represent and that does not belong to her, and for all the care she took to research the massacre, it’s clear she didn’t do the same when considering the impact of her words. 

Twice in the novel, Hayder used the word “chink,” as in “a narrow beam of light,” but given that the word is also used as a racial slur against those of Asian descent, I felt that it was inappropriate word choice. I’d never seen the word used outside of “chink of armor” and had to look it up to see if “chink of light” was even acceptable usage. While Merriam-Webster seems to think so, the word jolted me out of my otherwise immersive reading experience, and I wondered if an Asian writer would forego the word altogether. I’ve done some research and found that this slur is primarily used in America, and the author is English (and so is the main character), so it’s possible that the author didn’t know the slur. However, if this manuscript crossed my desk today, I would suggest that the author use a synonym to make the book more welcoming to Asian American audiences: “beam of light,” “ray of light,” or even something more unique like “needle of light” would work.

Additionally, one of the villains in the book was othered for being sexually ambiguous. Grove Press published The Devil of Nanking in 2004, and half of the book took place in 1990—I understand that’s how people talked in the ’90s and even the early 2000s (“it,” “she-male,” etc.). I also know that the characters’ feelings do not necessarily reflect the author’s feelings, but still, as a queer reader, the villain’s descriptions made me feel sick to my stomach. The way we write about LGBTQ+ characters matters, especially when there is already so much stigma against those who do not fall within strict gender roles. If I read the manuscript this year as the editor, I would suggest that the author do one of two things: either write the main character’s reaction to this villain in a way that clearly communicates fear of her actions, not her gender identity, or (if the author wanted to be true to the time) address the transphobia in an Author’s Note and blatantly state that the beliefs of the characters do not align with the beliefs of the author.