Originally published in 2013 as 살인자의 기억법 English translation first published in 2019
Diary of a Murderer captivates and provokes in equal measure, exploring what it means to be on the edge—between life and death, good and evil. In the titular novella, a former serial killer suffering from memory loss sets his sights on one final target: his daughter’s boyfriend, who he suspects is also a serial killer. In other stories we witness an affair between two childhood friends that questions the limits of loyalty and love; a family’s disintegration after a baby son is kidnapped and recovered years later; and a wild, erotic ride about pursuing creativity at the expense of everything else.
This collection of stories sits on the very edge of the genre as literary fiction but they show the writer’s skills at exploring and evoking feelings.
Some months ago I wrote a review of Young-Ha Kim’s Your Republic Is Calling You in which I praised the author’s creativity and ability to explore the nuances of human relationships. Those qualities are also present in this more recent collection of four short stories.
Like the novel, these stories touch on genre elements and themes but may be seen first and foremost as character and situation explorations. Each story places the characters into tense and challenging situations involving crime or the threat of violence and shows us how those flawed characters respond.
Young-Ha Kim creates some intriguing and striking situations, particularly in Diary of a Murderer which takes up almost half the page count for the collection. That story explores the idea of a serial killer experiencing Alzheimer’s Disease and how they respond when they fear another killer may be targeting their adopted daughter. It is a really clever story that plays with our perceptions and conveys the protagonist’s feelings of confusion.
The other story that really impressed me was Missing Child. As the title suggests, it centers on the way a child’s abduction affects the parents and the child themselves. I felt the characterizations were excellent and the plot unfolds in thoughtful and unexpected ways.
Those looking primarily for detective stories will probably want to pass over this collection but there are some really interesting ideas here that are worth exploring for those willing to venture outside the genre.
Thoughts on the individual stories follow on the next page.
범인은 바로 너 (Korean) Originally Broadcast – 2018-Present 2 series so far Starring: Yoo Jae-Suk, Ahn Jae-Wook, Kim Jong-Min, Lee Kwang-Soo, Park Min-Young, Oh Se-Hun, Kim Se-Jeong and Lee Seung-Gi Available on Netflix
Tackling different mysteries in each episode of this game show, seven sleuths get closer to solving the biggest one of all: What happened to Project D?
Chaotic, confusing and frequently hilarious, admittedly Busted! isn’t much of a mystery show but it is enormous fun.
Busted! (범인은 바로 너) is a comedic show that blends elements of game show, mystery and escape room formats to create something quite unique and often very funny.
The main cast is comprised of seven celebrities, each of whom play fictionalized versions of themselves (several cast members are from the long-running, popular Korean variety show Running Man). They have been experimented on by the mysterious K, injected with the DNA of great detectives to give them their abilities.
Each episode presents the team with a scenario that adapts different mystery tropes. For instance scenarios include a magician vanishing during a stage show, a cold case, several locked rooms and a case with supernatural elements.
It did take me a little while to adjust to the show’s sense of humor and to fully understand the concept but by about halfway through the first episode I was fully on-board. Those who are already familiar with Korean variety shows will not have that issue (I have since become a big fan – this show was my gateway).
Not every case is equally compelling and I will say that some clues will be hard for non-Korean speakers to crack (any involving Korean homophones for instance). Even when a puzzle was beyond me though, the chemistry between the cast remained highly endearing and I appreciated the imagination and creativity on display in creating so many different puzzles.
The majority of the puzzles though are pretty accessible – a few even rely on a knowledge of English – and the best cases are thoroughly entertaining such as The Vanished Magician and Battle of the Detectives.
I should say that for all the mystery-theming this show is first and foremost a comedic variety show with a focus on physical games and location-hopping. The success rate for some of these challenges is quite low and often there is a good dose of luck involved (or waiting for Park Min-Young to solve the problems for the boys) but almost every situation prompts lots of comedic bickering.
More than anything it left me with a tremendous desire to head to an escape room and solve some puzzles for myself and gave me a long list of places I really want to visit in South Korea (top of the list – C-Through Cafe in Seoul’s Yongsan district which produces gorgeous painted coffees and the lava caves on Jeju Island).
The second season debuted a few months ago and I was pleased to find that the quality of the games and puzzles remained high. The episodes do have a stronger connection to each other than in the first season with several characters and elements making repeat appearances. This means that the overarching plot feels more cohesive, particularly in the middle of the season, and I was more engaged in that story.
There is also a casting change that I have mixed feelings about. I enjoy the new cast member’s interactions with the existing group a lot but miss the departing cast member’s willingness to look extremely silly. I would also add that the way the character is written out is not particularly satisfying though I hope that will leave the door open for a return.
Though it may not be much of a real mystery show, I find Busted! to be enormously entertaining. Two seasons in I remain impressed by the creativity of the puzzles and situations and, more than anything, I thoroughly enjoy the interactions of the group.
Season Two ends in a bit of a cliffhanger and, so far, we are still waiting for a third season to be confirmed. Obviously I hope that we get news of that soon!
국민 여러분! (Korean) Originally Broadcast: 2019 36 episodes Starring: Choi Siwon, Lee Yoo-Young, Kim Min-Young Available on Viki (US)
A con man, who gets involved with unexpected incidents, marries a police officer and somehow ends up running to become a member of the National Assembly. (Wikipedia)
A lively and amusing comedic drama that sustains its farcical premise surprisingly well.
My Fellow Citizens! (국민 여러분!) is a comedic drama about a con man who discovers on the day of his marriage that his wife is a police officer. If this wasn’t problem enough, a loan shark he scammed catches up with him in search of their money.
Presented as short half hour episodes, this series is at its most successful when Yang Jung-kook (played by the incredibly charming Choi Siwon) is running a con or working to out-maneuver someone. There are several excellent set pieces and a few of the twists in the story are genuinely surprising and quite cleverly constructed.
Siwon’s performance as Jung-kook is very good as he manages to create a character who is simultaneously very charming and yet also often quite frustrating. We know how this character feels about his wife and yet we see that he is unable to find a better path for himself that will remove the barriers to trust in that relationship. We also get a sense of the harm some of his cons can cause which is a bit of a rarity in the con genre which tends to emphasize the style and trickery over its consequences. Still, we also get to see him evolve over the course of the series and while he may not be a good man (at least at the start), we quickly see there are far worse people out there.
Lee Yoo-young is strong and sympathetic as his wife, Kim Mi-young, and she gets to make a truly memorable entrance. I appreciated that she is shown to be passionate and skilled at her work and I particularly enjoyed the way the early episodes play with the idea that she is unwittingly trying to hunt down her own husband. This leads to some brilliant comedic scenes and I was surprised at how well the series sustains this tension.
The show also includes a heavy dose of social commentary, both about the resurgence of populist politics worldwide and about corruption, the influence of money in politics and the decline of civic values. While some of these themes are presented in ways that are quite specific to South Korea and its National Assembly, many are universal and for most of its run the show balances these serious elements well with more lighthearted, comedic moments.
One of the ways it does this is through the character of Kim Joo-Myung, a Member of the National Assembly who has been forced out on corruption charges and who is being blackmailed into helping Yang Jung-kook. This part is played perfectly by Kim Eui-sung who injects a wonderful cynicism and weariness into the character and gets many of the biggest laughs as he tries to keep an unruly political campaign on track only to be frustrated by his independent-minded candidate.
The only disappointment for me was in its ending which shifts the emphasis away from the characters’ relationship problem onto its social and political themes. As a result I felt that some parts of the story were not given quite the degree of attention and resolution that I was looking for. Specifically the resolution of the conflict between Jung-kook and Mi-young feels a little too rushed, which is a shame given the strong build up. Still, overall I found the depiction of their relationship to be enjoyable and really appreciated the way the two actors played off each other.
Finally I have to mention the show’s fantastic musical score. For those unfamiliar with k-dramas, there are typically recurring musical themes and stings that are used pretty frequently at key points in each episode and that is not any different here. This show’s score, which ranges from rap to pop, is brash, lively and often deployed to heighten the humor in the show’s most comedic scenes. In particular, I loved this song which is STILL stuck in my head months after first watching it.
Overall, I enjoyed this series to be consistently entertaining and amusing. If its final few episodes fall a little short of the comedic heights reached in it earliest episodes, the show is still amusing and hits some strong dramatic moments. Fans of heist stories should find enough to enjoy here, particularly if they are open to the series’ romance themes and elements.
This blog is dedicated to reviewing mystery and crime fiction but occasionally I find myself covering a book that doesn’t easily fit a genre label. Your Republic Is Calling You is one such story, being very difficult to summarize effectively with just a single phrase or sentence.
While the main character of this novel has been committing a crime for over twenty years, this book is really not a mystery or crime novel. It is not the focus of the narrative, nor of the themes it develops. Instead it is a starting point for an exploration of identity and family relationships on the micro-scale and of the development of Korean national identities, perspectives on history and cultural destiny over the course of thirty years.
Given that, you may wonder why I have chosen to write about it here. One reason is that I learned about this novel in a list of the best crime stories set in South Korea and I have seen it shelved as mystery fiction on Goodreads. I began reading it with the assumption that it would be a thriller and was sufficiently interested in the situation and characters to continue reading to finish the book once I realized my error.
The book introduces us to Ki-Yong, a businessman living in Seoul who imports movies from overseas to distribute to Korean theaters. He is successful enough to live comfortably but his business is pretty small, not being helped by a full-time employee scaring off any new hires with his habits of watching porn in the office. He is married to Ma-Ri who he had met at college when they were both members of a socialist student organization and they have a teenage daughter, Hyon-Mi, who seems to be doing well at school. He may not be rich but he seems to have a comfortable middle class lifestyle.
Then one morning he logs into his workstation at the office and discovers a coded message telling him that he must return to North Korea within twenty-four hours. This forces him to assess his life and consider his own identity while trying to understand the reasons for his recall and get his affairs in order. Meanwhile his wife is questioning what she wants when she meets her young lover in secret and he proposes they invite a male friend to join them and his daughter as she deals with her own issues with a boy.
I think given this is a mysteries blog it is most appropriate to start by considering those elements that most strongly align with the mystery and thriller genres. Those would be the espionage storyline, the discussion of the maintenance of a false identity (and the fact that anyone who learns that identity becomes a criminal under South Korean law) and the questions concerning the reasons for Ki-Yong’s recall.
The espionage elements were some of the most interesting in the novel. Young-Ha Kim explores the way Ki-Yong prepared for his mission and describes processes well such as the way a drawer might be arranged to spot if someone has tampered with it or messages are passed. I cannot speak to whether these elements are accurate but they struck me as credible and helped me understand how this character was able to serve his role.
I found the parts of the story that address the construction of a new identity and the questions that raises about what is real and what is performance to be both interesting and thought-provoking. For me the most interesting representation of this theme comes in his relationship with another North Korean agent in a sequence in which they share an awkward conversation in his apartment while reflecting on their life there. While those sorts of experiences are far removed from my own, I felt I had little difficulty imagining the emotional state that would create for this character and the questions he would have to wrestle with about whether he was acting or if he has become the persona he created.
The final of those points, the question of why the recall has been issued, is the aspect of the story that comes closest to being a mystery. This question hangs over much of the story and we are encouraged to consider a couple of possible explanations. It is certainly interesting but I would say that it is hardly a focus for the story. Rather this absence of knowledge is presented as an obstacle to Ki-Yong’s decision making, generating considerable feelings of indecision and paranoia in him. An answer is given by the end of the book however and I think it is satisfying, if not particularly surprising.
These genre elements largely serve as the backdrop for the family drama that unfolds in response to these events. While they only directly inform Ki-Yong’s own storyline, I think we come to see that Ma-Ri and Hyon-Mi’s stories are affected indirectly even if the connections are less obvious. For instance, is the breakdown in intimacy between Ki-Yong and Ma-Ri a reflection of his living a manufactured identity or perhaps a reflection of the loss of his youthful zeal as he finds himself assimilating into South Korean society and his values shift.
The author develops some interesting themes and ideas throughout the work but they are not all equally successful. Hyon-Mi’s struck me as a little hard to follow while I felt distinctly uncomfortable reading parts of Ma-Ri’s story. This was not so much a result of the subject matter as the way in which she is objectified both by the characters and in the descriptions. I think this is entirely intentional on the part of the author and designed to make a point but I did not find it those sections in any way enjoyable and felt they dragged on for far too long.
So, where does that leave us? Well, I would not propose reading this novel as a work of mystery or suspense fiction. While some of its most interesting and successful elements draw of ideas from those genres they are not the focus of the book and so it is hard to recommend reading it for those alone though it may interest those who enjoy espionage stories.
Although not all of its ideas are entirely successful, this is a provocative and creative work. Those who enjoy stories that explore complex cultural situations and interpersonal relationships will likely pull more out of this.
For my birthday last month my wife decided to take me on a sort of whistle stop tour of several bookshops in the area. While I didn’t have a whole lot of luck at any of the secondhand bookstores, I did get pick up a few more recent translated crime works including this Korean thriller from You-Jeong Jeong who is compared in blurbs to Stephen King and Patricia Highsmith.
These author comparisons are rarely accurate or informative but while I think this author’s work has its own distinctive qualities, I can at least understand what inspired these comparisons though I think Highsmith is the more apt of the two both in tone and subject matter. For my part I would draw some comparisons with Ruth Rendell’s work.
Apparently this book has been something of a hit, being picked for as a book of the Summer by several magazines and websites. All that hype passed me by at the time however and so I came to this with few expectations at all. I think that worked to the book’s credit in this case and I do suspect that if I had read a few of those raves I may have been a little disappointed.
The Good Son opens with the narrator, twenty-six year old law student Yu-jin, awakening to a strange metallic smell and a confusing phone call from his brother asking if everything is okay. When he leaves his room he finds his mother lying dead in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairs with her throat slit.
At first Yu-jin does not remember anything of the night before, a common side effect of the seizures he suffers from. Recognizing that things look bad for him he decides he needs to learn what happened and he starts to try and piece together his memories over the course of several days while covering up his mother’s death to buy himself some time.
The memory loss and extreme violence of the mother’s death make for an arresting beginning to the novel and I did find the situation interesting, even if I felt fairly sure from the start that I knew who was responsible for the death. I should say that I do not think You-Jeong Jeong gives away that point herself but rather the book’s blurb makes it pretty clear where this story would be headed. In any case, I do not think it is a problem that this aspect of the story is given away as there remains a mystery as to why this murder took place at all.
Yu-jin is an intriguing protagonist and while I cannot say I liked him or enjoyed his company, I did find his backstory to be quite compelling. This backstory is partly explored through his own memories and partly from the perspectives of other characters in the form of documents he reads and responds to throughout the novel.
Some of the promotional quotes you may read will describe him as an unreliable narrator which I don’t think is really very accurate. It is true that he does not share every relevant piece of information with the reader immediately but I do not think this is supposed to be an act of manipulation by that character. For one thing this story isn’t really presented as though it is a document written by him for a third party to read. Instead I think it is clear that any information he does not share initially is because it did not seem relevant to him at that time and, in some cases, because he does not remember events the way other characters do. This, to me, is one of the central ideas of the book – that characters have their own perspectives and may experience the same event in different ways.
I thought that the information revealed in the course of Yu-jin’s investigation added enormously to my understanding of his character and of the book’s themes yet I did not care for the way this was handled narratively as we are told what happened rather than shown it. Essentially the character spends much of the book reading and reflecting upon a document that he reads in sections working backwards in time, prompting him to remember relevant details and gain a greater understanding for his situation.
While I do not have any inherent objection to discovering information through documents, my problem with this approach here is that it renders Yu-jin a largely passive figure for much of the story. Any actions he takes are in reaction to an immediate threat of discovery but he does not have much to do beyond reading and thinking. As interesting as some of the revelations are, the inaction in the present makes it feel a curiously academic exercise, eliminating any tension that could otherwise be built up in those scenes. Coupled with Yu-jin’s calm, relatively emotionless persona this makes much of the story feel oddly static and while there are some flashes of tension at points, the lack of urgency during this central section of the book detracted from its impact.
In contrast I think several of the supporting characters are quite interesting and I found learning about their stories and relationships to each other to be more compelling. There are some compelling moments and ideas here, not least in the relationship between his mother and aunt, and I think it is in the portrayals of these characters that the book comes closest to defying expectations. Similarly the book’s most interesting questions all spring out of these characterizations.
While I think Yu-jin’s issues are clear, even if they need more explanation, from an early point in the book I found the relationships between the other members of his family and their feelings towards him to be quite ambiguous at first. Given we see them initially from Yu-jin’s perspective and hear what he thinks their views of him are, we do not truly know them until we are close to the novel’s conclusion. In each case I found the characters to be more interesting and complex than I had expected.
The novel’s conclusion works well and is thankfully free of the pacing issues and passivity I felt damaged the middle sections of the novel. I would suggest that they are quite thrilling, containing a few moments of fantastic tension and even a few surprises. My suspicion is that much of the praise for this book is derived from this short final section of the novel. I was certainly satisfied and felt that it did a great job of bringing everything together.
So, where does that leave me overall? I should begin by saying that those looking for a mystery should look elsewhere. While some stores and libraries are shelving it that way, it really is much more of a thriller. There are some interesting things to discover but it is much more of an exploration of a character and the way their life has developed.
At times it is really quite clever and I think it does build to a powerful and satisfying finish. My problem was a stylistic one – I wanted to see Yu-jin play a more active part in finding out about his past and in uncovering what had happened or for there to be a little more variety in the way he learns about it. Instead I found the novel’s midsection to be a bit of a slog.
While I wasn’t as thrilled about this book as many seem to have been, I do think the author creates an interesting premise and characters. This is the first of her books to have appeared in English translation but I would certainly be interested to read the others, particularly Seven Years of Night (7년의 밤) which sounds like my sort of read. Hopefully, given the success that this book seems to have found, those others may follow…
Update: 3/2/2020 – The good news is that book I hoped would be translated is on its way. Titled Seven Years of Darkness, it will be released on June 2nd. It has also been translated by Chi-Young Kim.