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Korea Blog: the Korean literary crime wave, part one

Americans in general don’t emigrate at particularly high rates, but some Americans in particular are given to declaring, in moments of frustration, their imminent move to another country. Often that country is Canada, possibly because of the vague impressions it inspires of a more humane and orderly civilization (and more probably due to linguistic and geographic convenience). Sometimes that country is Sweden, which to certain observers represents the fullest possible realization of political and economic idyll in this world. But as enthusiasts of crime fiction know, not quite all can be well in the land that produces such great quantities of what has been labeled “Scandi noir.” In the United States — a nation whose readers’ appetite for crime fiction seems downright insatiable — that bleak, society-indicting genre is most popularly represented by Swedish journalist-novelist Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels.

With the final book of that trilogy having been published in English translation more than a decade ago, and Larsson having died years before that, the publishing industry has cast around for other societies capable of producing counterintuitively stark and savage crime fiction. Certain well-established Japanese mystery novelists, like Hideo Yokoyama and Natsuo Kirino, have ridden the waves of this boom. But over the past decade here in South Korea, a number of younger writers have been working so productively and so squarely in the realm of crime fiction that they’ve made their country almost too likely a candidate to run with Scandi noir’s torch through the English-reading world. Earlier this month, Yun Ko-eun’s The Disaster Tourist, won the UK Crime Writers’ Association Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger award, which over the previous decade had gone three times to Scandinavian novels, all of them Swedish.

If an international Korean literary crime wave is indeed afoot, an examination has to proceed from an earlier point in time. We must go back at the very least to 2019, when more than one high-profile, critically acclaimed Korean crime novel began appearing in English per year. 2019 saw the publication of both Jeong You-jeong’s The Good Son, translated by Kim Chi-young, and Kim Un-su’s The Plotters, translated by Sora Kim-Russell. In each book the protagonist is a killer, hardly an out-of-line choice for the genre, but the style of the killings themselves could hardly be more different. The Plotters tells the story of a professional hitman who has hardly known any other form of existence; The Good Son, of a 25-year-old layabout (a “NEET”) who wakes up to find his mother slain in the next room, with all signs pointing to him as the culprit.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.