“Bad Kids” by Zijin Chen

Zijin Chen Zijin Chen

When a group of junior high school students in China unwittingly film a murder, instead of turning the footage over to the authorities, they devise a scheme to extort money from the killer. These aren’t just any kids, they are Zhu Chaoyang, Ding Hao, and Pupa—the titular Bad Kids of Zijin Chen’s recently translated thriller. 


Adults think that children are simple, and that their lies are easily uncovered. They have no idea how wicked some kids can be!


The three have repeatedly been let down by adults in their lives. Zhu Chaoyang is treated unfairly by his teacher and is virtually ignored by his father, who spends more time and money on his second wife and daughter than him. He is often bullied at school because of his book smarts and shabby appearance, so he seems unlikely to participate in coercion, but when an old friend shows up on his doorstep needing help, he finds himself becoming increasingly entangled in the plan.

Ding Hao is a former classmate of Chaoyang’s, but they haven’t seen each other in five years. After his parents were arrested for murder and executed, Ding Hao was sent to live at an orphanage in Beijing. Having recently run away, he returns to his old neighborhood in Ningbo to seek shelter with his best friend from elementary school.

Pupa escaped the orphanage along with Ding Hao after she was assaulted by one of the employees. The youngest of the group, she thinks that “Grown-ups are the worst.” Because the last thing she wants is to get sent back, she is determined to be independent—this means that she and Ding Hao need money to survive on their own. Driven by their desperation and mistrust of adults, Chen’s well-developed characters navigate a world of adolescence, deceit, and crime.


Bad Kids, Zijin Chen, Michelle Deeter (trans) (Pushkin Vertigo, June 2023)
Bad Kids, Zijin Chen, Michelle Deeter (trans) (Pushkin Vertigo, June 2023)

But the story begins with Zhang Dongsheng and his elderly in-laws visiting the Sanmingshan nature park on a summer day. When they stop to rest along the trail, he instructs them to sit on a low wall near an overlook so that he can take their picture. While no one is looking, he grabs their feet and thrusts them over the ledge. As they fall, their screams alert the park visitors and staff of the tragedy. Zhang pretends to be shocked and distraught—the authorities are quick to rule the old couple’s death and accident, and he gloats to himself that it was the perfect crime.

The novel opens with this grisly scene, so readers know from the start what really happened on the mountain that day. Yet the book is full of suspense and unexpected twists—the first being that the trio of young friends just happened to take a video of Zhang’s vicious act. From there a series of somewhat unlikely coincidences follow; for example, after realizing they have recorded the murder, the three need to track Zhang down, and the next day, they conveniently spot him while they are out shopping. Pupa seizes the opportunity to confront him and put their plan in motion.


“So why don’t you give the camera to the police?”
      “Because we want to sell it to you,” Pupu said.
      “How can you be so sure that I’ll buy it?” Zhang asked with a fake smile.
      “You drive a BMW, so you have the money. If you don’t want to buy it, we’ll hand it over to the police, and you’ll be on death row,” she answered.
He was stunned—how could such a small person threaten him so openly?


But wickedness knows no age limits, and there are several deadly plots in motion. These are investigated by Captain Ye Jun, yet as the body count rises, math professor Yan Liang is also in pursuit of the truth.

Exploring the chilling depths of human nature, Zijen Chen’s novel has won critical acclaim: the English translation by Michelle Deeter was shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger 2023, and previously the book was adapted as a television series in China which received numerous domestic and international awards.

Mary Hillis (@mhillis) is a teacher and writer based in Japan.