Five to Try: Memory Mysteries

I first began compiling this list in response to Curtis’ Friday Fright Night meme (more on that here). You see, being of a somewhat squeamish disposition I don’t typically read books that really fit with the trappings of the horror genre and so I thought rather laterally about things that scare me.

The first thing that came to mind was the idea of losing my memory or my sense of awareness of my own actions. The odd thing is that I cannot really identify the origin of that fear. There is no great incident in my own life I can think of, nor do I have any reason to think that it is likely to happen to me. Still, the idea unsettles me and so I often find myself drawn to stories that use it in some fashion.

One work that does this well, though I have not included on my list, is the fascinating short story Diary of a Serial Killer by Young-Ha Kim. I decided against this book because only one of the stories, the titular one, is really a genre work. That story however is fascinating as we experience the thoughts of a serial killer who is suffering from dementia and struggles to keep his memories and thoughts in order – a dangerous prospect for someone whose life is comprised of secrets that might someday slip out. The presentation of what that would be like and, particularly, how distressing it could be is really effective and makes for a really powerful reading experience.

Looking at the five titles I have picked, none of them are really horrific or spooky in their presentation though I think some create horrific situations for their protagonists. I will try harder next time!

What I tried to do was select five books that handle the idea of memory in different ways, each focusing on some different aspect of it. In some you experience, quite directly, the narrator’s sense of confusion about their actions as they try to piece together what happened. In others the reader is kept at a distance from that character whose memory loss might be treated more ambiguously.

As always with these Five to Try-style posts, I invite you to share your own favorites of stories that play with memory-loss or manipulation in the comments. I love reading your thoughts and expanding on my wishlist of titles to read in the future!

One final note – I might very well have selected Great Black Kanba for this list had I not previously chosen it as part of my Railway Mysteries list just a few weeks ago. That offers a great example of how a character’s memory loss leaves her utterly confused about just who to trust and is definitely worthy of a closer look if you can track down an affordable copy. And so with that out of the way, on with the list!

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Ordeal by Innocence (1958) by Agatha Christie

If Only I Had Remembered…

I think it is fitting to begin this list with a book by Agatha Christie since she herself was supposed to have experienced one of the more mysterious cases of amnesia herself. For more on that story, check out this episode of the excellent Shedunnit podcast.

Ordeal by Innocence begins with Arthur arriving at the home of the Argyle family to share some information with them. Several years earlier the matriarch of the family had been murdered and her adopted son, Jacko, had been sent to prison for the crime. He had claimed that he had been given a lift by a stranger at the time but that stranger could never be found. Arthur reveals he had been that man and the reason he could not verify the information was that he had lost his memory due to a car accident.

Unfortunately this piece of newly remembered information does not bring the peace Arthur had hoped for. Jacko had died in prison some time before and, as everyone soon realizes, if it wasn’t him then someone else in the house must have been responsible.

While the premise to this one is rather convoluted, it explores some interesting issues and family dynamics. Christie uses a structure where the story is told from the perspectives of each of her characters which allows us to understand how they are feeling and explore the sense of paranoia that Arthur’s revelation causes in most of them. Though not wholly successful, the book was one of Christie’s favorites and feels quite different from much of the author’s other work.

The Executioner Weeps (1957) by Frédéric Dard (Translated by David Coward)

Who Is She?

Most of the examples I have chosen on this list feature a protagonist who is struggling to piece together their memory of some events that happened to them. This work by Dard takes a different approach by having the person trying to piece that memory together be someone who finds the woman experiencing memory loss and falls in love with her.

What this book deals with, very effectively, is the idea that someone losing their memories might develop a secondary or different personality and that – in time, as their memories return – the original personality may reappear. It makes for a really compelling slice of noir drama and a great introduction to Dard’s work.

The Good Son (2016) by You-Jeong Jeong (Translated by Chi-Young Kim)

Why Did I Do It?

A young man wakes up to the smell of blood and a confusing telephone call from his brother asking if everything is okay. As he explores his house he finds his mother lying dead in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairs with her throat slit.

The main character suffers from seizures and frequently does not remember things following them. Slowly his memories come back as he decides to try and cover up what he did.

While I prefer You-Jeong Jeong’s Seven Years of Darkness, this book is a better match for the theme of this list and does a really good job of portraying how disconcerting this experience is for the protagonist.

Net of Cobwebs (1946) by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

Did I Do That?

Malcolm Drake served as a merchant seaman before his boat was torpedoed leaving him quite nervous and volatile. He is staying with his brother and their family to convalesce which includes his rather domineering Aunt Evie. During a party Aunt Evie drops dead of alcohol poisoning. Several members of the party are sure that Malcolm was responsible and one, the butler, even claims to have witnessed it.

Holding is a superb writer who explores compelling psychological situations. Several of her stories incorporate some aspect of memory or the idea that the mind is playing tricks on a character. I think Malcolm’s volatility makes him an interesting protagonist however and left me quite unsure how this story would end.

The Red Right Hand (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers

Why Don’t I Remember?

My final selection is also one of my favorite reads on this list. The Red Right Hand is told from the perspective of a character who ought to have been a witness to a murderer fleeing. The way the road is laid out they must have passed him and yet he cannot remember seeing anything. As he delves deeper into his memory, replaying events, we may begin to doubt the trustworthiness of those memories and if there might be some other reason that he cannot recall seeing a killer pass him.

This was recently reissued by Penzler Publishing as part of their American Mystery Classics series and is one of my favorite releases of this past year. Part of the reason for that is the book is not simply an unsettling suspense or thriller story but it also plays fair with the reader.


So those are my selections on this theme. What are some of your favorite mysteries that play with the idea of memory?

Seven Years of Darkness by You-Jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim

Book Details

Originally published in 2011 as 7년의 밤
English language translation published in 2020
Prior to the release of the translation this book’s title was more often translated as Seven Years of Night and the film adaptation had a limited release in the US under that title.

The Blurb

A young girl is found dead in Seryong Lake, a reservoir in a remote South Korean village. The police immediately begin their investigation.

At the same time, three men – Yongje, the girl’s father, and two security guards at the nearby dam, each of whom has something to hide about the night of her death – find themselves in an elaborate game of cat and mouse as they race to uncover what happened to her, without revealing their own closely guarded secrets.

When a final showdown at the dam results in a mass tragedy, one of the guards is convicted of murder and sent to prison.

For seven years, his son, Sowon, lives in the shadow of his father’s shocking and inexplicable crime. When Sowon receives a package that promises to reveal at last what really happened at Seryong Lake, he must confront a present danger he never knew existed.

The Verdict

This whydunnit is a fascinating exploration of a historical crime and the way its notoriety affects the life of its young protagonist.


My Thoughts

Sowon was just eleven years old on the night that became known as the Seryong Lake Disaster. On that night Seryong Village was destroyed when Sowon’s father who was in charge of security at Seryong Dam opened its sluice gates, causing water to flood and drown the town. His father became known as a crazed murderer with Sowon’s mother among his victims and Sowon, abandoned by his family, is forced into a drifter’s existence with Mr. Ahn, the man who had worked for his father and been his roommate in the weeks leading up to that disastrous night.

We get a brief description of what that existence was like before jumping forwards to a day when Sowon receives a package containing an incomplete manuscript written by Mr. Ahn. In that manuscript Sowon reads an account of the events leading up to that night apparently drawing on interviews and learns more of the background to that crime, realizing that there were many things he did not know about those events. Most of the rest of the book is made up of that account with occasional reactions from Sowon as we learn how he interprets what he reads.

Last year I read and wrote about The Good Son, the first of You-Jeong Jeong’s novels to be translated into English. I ended my review by sharing my hope that its success would lead to further translations and singled out this title as the one I would be most interested to read. The reason that this one in particular jumped out at me was that it seemed to be a more conventional mystery, albeit more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit.

I think it is true to say that questions of motive lie at the heart of this book. While we do not witness the events of that night in the prologue, his father admits his guilt and so the question is what drove him to an action that seems inconsistent with Sowon’s memories of him prior to that night. The answers to that question lie in an exploration of the years leading up to that night and, more specifically, in the discovery of a young girl’s body in the reservoir shortly before the flooding.

Sowon does not begin the book by looking for the truth. If anything he has spent the best part of a decade running away from the events of that night, trying to separate himself from his father’s crimes. Instead it seems to hold a grim fascination for him, particularly as just a few hours later he receives a package addressed by someone else containing a copy of a Sunday Magazine article that would always find its way into the hands of his classmates at the various schools he attended and a single Nike shoe with his name written on the tongue – a shoe he had lost at Seryong Lake.

I commented in my review of The Good Son that the protagonist in that story was quite passive and I think the same can be said of Sowon in this book. For much of the book he is simply absorbing information, sometimes reacting to things that stand out or making connections between some events that Mr. Ahn was unaware of, but taking little action. I did find myself wondering why Mr. Ahn was not chosen to be the protagonist since he had clearly done most of the legwork in piecing the events together.

There are, of course, good reasons for this choice. Sowon is the most sympathetic character in the book with the exception of the dead girl, as he is clearly a victim of the events of that night. By telling the story from his perspective, we also are invited to wonder about the motivations of Mr. Ahn and then, towards the end, we follow Sowon as he has to decide how to respond to what he has learned. While that may make him an unimpressive investigator, he is the character who is most intimately concerned in the outcome of the investigation and the character we most want to see find some form of closure at the end.

The decision to tell the story out of sequence with the Ahn manuscript as a framework works well as it encourages the reader to consider those events knowing the outcome. We look, in particular, for those issues with his parents’ marriage along with the discovery of the body.

The strength of the work lies in its characters. While Sowon is quite innocent, most of the other characters are rendered as complex and there is often a disconnect between the intentions of an action and its impact. One of my favorites is Mr. Ahn, the man who ends up taking Sowon in when his family abandon him. The description of how that comes to happen is rather heartbreaking and I appreciated the bond they form.

The more Sowon and we learn, the more we understand exactly what happened on that night and why things happened that way. We even learn more about why Sowon’s life has unfolded since then in the way it has, making for a pleasingly rich narrative. While Seven Years of Darkness is not always a comfortable read, particularly in the passages describing the events leading up to the girl’s death, it is well written and it builds to a compelling conclusion. In thos final pages we finally learn much of the truth about exactly what happened at those sluice gates and Sowon is pushed to take action.

I cannot really call many of the revelations or developments shocking. Jeong lays out her characters and the situation too well for anything to feel like a twist – but our understanding of those events does evolve as we learn more about that night and the personalities of those involved. Instead it feels more like piecing together a jigsaw – we have chunks of the puzzle but it takes a while to place them correctly in relation to each other.

I found the process of piecing together the various things we knew to be interesting and I appreciated that the explanation as to what happens feels deeply rooted in the characters we have spent the book getting to know. It makes for an interesting and rewarding read and I am happy to see that it seems to also be well received. Here’s hoping that one of the author’s other novels may follow soon…

The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong, translated by Chi-Young Kim

The Good Son
You-Jeong Jeong
Originally published as 종의 기원 in 2016
English translation published in 2018

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.