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Book Review: 이웃이 같은 사람들 by KIM Jae-hui

About the book

Title: 이웃이 같은 사람들
Author: KIM Jae-hui 김재희
Published by 시송사

KIM Jae-hui is one of the most famous authors of crime fiction in Korea and the creator of detective LEE Sang. 이웃이 같은 사람들 is the second volume of the series “Profiler KIM Seong-ho” (프로파일러 김성호 시리즈).

Setting

The police are investigating the murder of a teenager found in a discarded fridge.

Review: A realistic investigation, but not what I was expecting.

To be honest, I didn’t quite enjoy reading 이웃이 같은 사람들. I found the story appealing enough to want to read it until the end, but I didn’t feel quite involved in the characters.

First of all, I think that KIM Jae-hui’s novels might be more on the literary side than most detective/police novels so if you are looking for something strictly belonging to genre fiction, this might not be the best choice. Also, if you are learning Korean and looking for an easy novel to start reading in Korean, 이웃이 같은 사람들 is definitely not the novel you are looking for.

I found that the police investigation was very realistic and some aspects were described with a lot of details which showed that the author must have made serious research before writing her book. But I would also say that, as a reader of genre fiction, I was not expecting to learn in so many details how forensics work for example.

Also, genre fiction will usually focus on one or two police officers, and while it is obvious that a whole team is working in the background, there is no need to know them all by name. In 이웃이 같은 사람들, there are a lot of police officers, they are all introduced by name, but not really described. After a while, I found it hard to remember who was who and what were the characteristics and personality of each character.

Another thing that completely puzzled me in this novel is the whole neighbour thing. The neighbours are in the title of the book, and several scenes look like we are going to deal with a novel that involves neighbours, but all these scenes do not really bring anything to the story. The whole investigation focuses on something else, and I don’t understand what was the point of all the scenes relative to the neighbours. I found the title and the wrapping band saying “네 이웃을 조심하라” to be misleading: this is not what the novel is about.

Finally, I was not convinced by the profiler KIM Seong-ho. I could not see what his being a “profiler” brought to the investigation. But here again, it might come from the novel being more on the realistic side. Profilers in real life are certainly different from what we see in films and drama! I must also add that I haven’t read the first book of the series, so maybe we learn more about Seong-ho in this first novel?

My review might be a little severe, but it is just my opinion. You will certainly enjoy reading 이웃이 같은 사람들 if you are looking for a novel that describes a police investigation in a realistic way, and if you want to learn more about Korea’s private middle school or school bullying, which is one of the main topics of the novel.

Otherwise, I would rather recommend reading 경성 탐정 이상, also written by KIM Jae-hui. It has an interesting historical background and well-depicted characters that you are not likely to forget! 

Book review: 신데렐라 포장마차 by JEONG Ga-il

About the book

Title: 신데렐라 포장마차 1
Author: JEONG Ga-il 정가일
Published by 들녘

This novel won the Korean Award for Crime Fiction in 2017. A second volume is to follow.

신데렐라 포장마차 1 introduces private detective KIM Geon and police detective SHIN Yeong-gyu. The novel contains several mysteries that are all linked in one way or another to French cuisine.

Setting

The novel contains 3 episodes, each devoted to a different mystery and linked to a French dish. The mysterious private detective KIM Geon will tackle these cases with the help of So Ju-hui, who works in a restaurant and has a taste for solving puzzles.

These adventures will lead to the food truck Cinderella, which appears only for one hour every night and offers the best French cuisine for a ridiculous price.

Review: Easy to read, funny, light and clever

This book is very easy to read with a lot of dialogues and a few descriptions. Reading this novel felt like reading a webtoon, I could always picture the characters and their expressions, and I liked the humour of some scenes. It was a light read, the kind of book you want to take with you on holiday.

I liked the story and the mysteries. I don’t usually like when food and mysteries are mixed together, but it was cleverly done here, and I found that it worked very well.

I found the characters very interesting, especially the complex personality of LEE Yu-hyeon. It seems that we will learn more about the characters and their past in the second volume.

I personally enjoyed reading 신데렐라 포장마차 but I must also add that it is not really my style. It has a surrealistic dimension that does not fit my personal taste. I prefer novels to be realistic. I find that the art cover illustrates the tone of the novel very well. If you find it appealing, then don’t hesitate to read the novel!

Book Review: 붉은 집 살인사건 by DO Jin-gi 도진기

Presentation

Title: 붉은 집 살인사건
Author: DO Jin-gi 도진기
Published by 황금가지

붉은 집 살인사건 is the first novel of the series Lawyer GO Jin (변호사 고진 series). There are five novels so far in this series and the fourth one (유다의 별) won the Korean Award for Crime Fiction.

The series features GO Jin (고진) who is a lawyer of the shadows. He does not appear in court and does not work in a law firm. He takes cases from clients like a private detective would do and works in collaboration with police detective LEE Yu-hyeon (이유현).

Setting

Two families, the Nam and the Seo, live under the same roof and share a common and tragic past. A question of inheritance upsets the apparent order of the house and murders of the past reappear. GO Jin and LEE Yu-hyeon will investigate the past, while feeling that the danger is more present than ever.

Review: Easy to read, suspenseful and exciting whodunit.

I absolutely loved the setting of this novel and the relationship between the two families. An unsolved murder coming back from the past and a will that upsets everything… this is exactly the kind of story that I enjoy reading.

I also loved the duo GO Jin & LEE Yu-hyeon and appreciated how deduction and investigation work together in this novel. The two protagonists will have long discussions over the case, will leave no stone unturned, test every possibilities and challenge alibis. I really like murder mysteries that rely more on deduction than action or chance. If you are looking for a good whodunnit, you will not be disappointed with this novel.

Another thing that I liked is that every clue, every single piece of information falls into place in the end. Nothing is left unexplained.

The only point that I could criticise is the abundance of explanations. On one hand, all the explanations relative to the case are certainly one of the most exciting aspects of the novel, it makes you feel that you are taking an active part in the investigation, and if Korean is not your mother tongue, it makes things also easier to follow. On the other hand, however, I was sometimes under the impression that the characters explained too much, and I was looking forward to moving on!

To summarize, this is an excellent murder mystery that is easy to read. I did prefer the second book of the series, 라 트라비아타의 초상, but both are worth reading!

Visiting the bookshop Mystery Union in Seoul

The other day, I visited a bookshop in Seoul called Mystery Union and devoted to crime fiction!

Emblem of the Mystery Union

I first heard of this bookshop in the journal “Quarterly Mystery” (issue 62, Winter 2018). In this issue, there is an interview with the bookshop owner YU Su-yeong (유수영).

Mystery Union is situated in a small alley near Shinchon station, and it greets its visitors with a beautiful wooden style exterior and the warm light on the doorstep.

The interior is decorated with taste to convey an atmosphere of mystery and makes you feel you are entering a world of detective fiction. Portraits of crime authors and art work of Sherlock inspired by the BBC series set the tone: this is a bookshop for crime fiction.

Today’s date and a reference to the series Sherlock
Portraits of crime authors and book covers by Mystery Union
Artwork gives the bookshop a unique identity

While Mystery Union is small in size, you will find here a better selection of crime fiction than in other huge offline bookshops of Seoul. A whole wall is devoted to translated crime fiction, and the selection goes far beyond the usual choice of best-sellers and trendy books you would see in general bookshops.

This is certainly the best place of Seoul to buy translated crime fiction!

What interested me the most is, of course, the selection of Korean thrillers, detective and mysteries.

Korean detective novels

A whole section of the bookshop is devoted to Korean crime fiction. It is by far the greatest selection for Korean detective novels that I have seen in an offline bookshop. There were great authors you would expect to find like KIM Nae-seong, KIM Seong-jong, or KIM Jae-hui, DO Jin-gi or SEO Mi-ae. But there were also authors I was not familiar with and had never seen before. I was also glad to find the winners of the Korean Award for Crime Fiction, most of which I could not find in other bookshops.

Section devoted to Korean mystery and detective novels

In her interview for Quarterly Mystery, YU Su-yeong says that visitors are often surprised by the number of Korean books and Korean authors displayed. This is what is great with specialised bookshops: they might be small in size but they offer a unique selection of books, contrary to bigger bookshops who rely on sales numbers to decide whether to keep a title in their stock or not.

YANG Su-ryeon’s book was displayed because it won the Korean Award for Crime Fiction in the category “new author”.

Visiting Mystery Union allowed me to extend my collection of Korean crime fiction:

The four books I bought at Mystery Union

There is the last DO Jin-gi (도진기) 합리적 의심 (Reasonable Doubt), it was published in February 2019, and I wanted to buy it for some time. I also chose a book by SEO Mi-ae (서미애), the Korean Queen of crime. I didn’t know which of her books to pick, but I have finally set my heart on 잘 자요 엄마. The novel 춤 추는 집 by 정석화 is a title I saw for the first time. The summary was appealing so I thought I would give it a try. Finally, I was very glad to find 선암여고 탐정단 by PARK Ha-ik. It won the Korean Award for crime fiction in 2015.

More information:

Mystery Union on Instagram

Go there: 88−11 Ewhayeodae-gil, Sinchon-dong, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul

Review: Short Story 벌처기 by KIM Nae-seong 김내성

Presentation

Title: 벌처기 (罰妻記)
Author: KIM Nae-seong 김내성
First published in the collection of short stories 비밀의 문. I read the e-book version by publisher 어떤날의 책.

The short story 벌처기 was first published in the collection of detective short stories 비밀의 문. I think that it is still possible to buy an old physical copy of the book (1994). If not, there is an e-book version of the collection.

Setting

The story is very short and divided into three parts. A man is accused of having murdered his wife, and the reader has access to three narrations: first, the accused explain how he committed the murder; then his lawyer talks about the motive; finally, the person who discovered the victim relates how it happened.

Why I loved it

“평화는 장군을 줄이고 평범은 시인을 질식시킨다!”

I loved this short story, it was suspenseful and had interesting social elements. The first part describes a murder on the making and the fabrication of an alibi, I loved reading this part. The third part explains why the accused got caught in the end. The second part, however, contains a social criticism and the question: can artistic creation be an excuse for everything? are artists superior to the modest average citizen?

I found the structure of this short story very appealing and the ending was great too.

Note: I bought this e-book on Ridibooks, the volume contains both 가상범인 and 벌처기. If you buy an e-book on Ridibooks, be sure that you can download their reader (smartphone app or pc) because I don’t think that you can read the e-book otherwise.

K-thrillers, genre fiction hallyu… Korean crime fiction outside Korea

Korean thrillers and psychological thrillers are drawing more and more attention outside of Korea.

種の起源: the Japanese version of 종의 기원 by JEONG You-jeong

Japanese author Miyuki MIYABE, who is a famous author of SF, detective and mystery novels, wrote an article for Yomiuri Shimbun called “The New Wave of Korean literature”. In this article, she wonders why so few Korean novels of crime fiction arrive in Japan. When it comes to cinema, South Korea is the country that gave to the world some of the greatest masterpieces of thrillers and crime fiction. Miyuki MIYABE mentions Memories of Murder by BONG Joon-ho, but we could cite so many other great works. In her article, Miyuki MIYABE said that when she asked why Korean genre fiction is not more developed in the literary scene, she was told that the Korean publishing world tends to favour literary fiction over genre fiction like mysteries or SF that are written for entertainment only.

あの子はもういない: Japanese version of 시스터 by LEE Du-on

Miyuki MIYABE says that recently, a wave of Korean genre fiction is rising and arriving in Japan. She mentions author JEONG You-jeong and her novel 종의 기원 (English title: The Good Son, Japanese title: 種の起源) and author LEE Du-on 이두온 whose novel 시스터 (Japanese title: あの子はもういない) is a best-seller in Japan. Both are suspenseful thrillers with family as a central theme.

The Japanese version of 시스터 has the catchy phrase “K-thriller” on its promotional wrapping band, and literary critic Akiyuki SENGAI said about it: “이 작품이야말로 한류 서스펜스의 진면목”.

The new wave of Korean thrillers is not only landing in Japan: Western readers are also discovering Korean authors, in particular, LEE Jung-myung, JEONG You-jeong and more recently KIM Un-su.

The Investigation: English title of 별을 스치는 바람 by LEE Jung-myung

LEE Jung-myung’s novel 별을 스치는 바람 (published in 2012 in Korea) has been translated and published in 10 countries and received a literary award in Italia. The English title is The Investigation. It tells the last year of poet YUN Dong-ju 윤동주 who died in the prison of Fukuoka in 1945. The Korean title of LEE Jung-myung’s novel is a reference to YUN Dong-ju’s most famous poem which ends by “오늘 밤에도 별이 바람에 스치운다 ” (Tonight, again, the stars are brushed by the wind, translation by Kyungnyun K. Richards & Steffen F. Richards).

The Good Son: English title of 종의 기원 by JEONG You-jeong

JEONG You-jeong has also seduced western readers in 19 countries with 종의 기원 (The Good Son). The rights for her novel 7년의 밤 have already been sold in 13 countries.

More recently, KIM Un-su’s thriller 설계자들 (English title: The Plotters) has attracted a lot of positive critics.

The two last titles are advertised as “thrillers” outside Korea, but in Korean bookshops, you are more likely to find them in the section “Korean literature” than in the “detective, mystery, thrillers” section, which is filled with translated works.

Sources:

“정유정·이두온…日 파고드는 ‘장르소설 한류'” by 은정진 기자 for 한국 경제

“해외에서 더 뜨거운 ‘K스릴러’ 열풍이 분다” by 이영경 기자 for 경향신문

韓国文芸界の新たな波 by 宮部みゆきfor 読売新聞

A picture of the cover of the novel 라 트라비아타의 초상 by 도진기.

Book Review: 라 트라비아타의 초상 by DO Jin-gi 도진기

An exciting whodunit that will seriously test your power of deduction! Fans of detective novels, you will love it!

Presentation

Title: 라 트라비아타의 초상
Author: DO Jin-gi 도진기
Published by 황금가지 (2017)

This book is the second volume of the series “lawyer GO Jin” 변호사 고진, but it can be read independently. The series features the duo inspector LEE Yu-hyeon 이유현 & lawyer 고진 GO Jin.

The author DO Jin-gi is a lawyer and one of the most successful contemporary author of crime fiction. He won the Korean Award for Crime Fiction (한국추리문학대상) in 2014 for 유다의 별, a novel of the series “lawyer GO Jin”.

Setting

Two persons found dead in an apartment… One person lived there, but not the other… What was he doing here? How did he enter? Was there a third person? How and why did they die?

Police inspector 이유현 has a mysterious case to solve. With the help of lawyer GO Jin, he will try to assemble the puzzle of this double murder.

Why I absolutely loved it

It is not every day that I have the luck to read such an exciting whodunit. 라 트라비아타의 초상 is a remarkable detective novel where the reader can take an active part. Like inspector 이유현, I had my head full of this case even when I was not reading the book.

What I liked the most was to consider all the scenarios that could explain what happened. In Lord Edgware Dies by Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot says to his friend Hastings:

“We are only considering possibilities. It is like trying on the clothes. Does this fit! No, it wrinkles on the shoulder? This one? Yes, that is better—but not quite large enough. This other one is too small. So on and so on—until we reach the perfect fit— the truth.”

This is exactly what GO Jin and LEE Yu-hyeon (and the reader!) did in this novel, and it was extremely exciting.

Another thing that I really appreciated is that we, as a reader, are conducting the investigation with LEE Yu-hyeon. Whenever I see a fictional couple of detectives, I am always afraid that they will be based on Conan Doyle’s characters, with a brilliant detective who knows everything but does not reveal it until the end, and a puzzled narrator who can only follow and admire.

In the couple LEE Yu-hyeon & GO Jin, the lawyer gives the result of his deductions and the inspector investigates to check alibis and motives and see if it fits. Deduction on one side, investigation on the other, the balance is perfect and the result is a real delight.

I highly recommend reading DO Jin-gi if you like detective novels!

A view of the sea, with a grey cliff and boats on the horizon.

Review: 회색의 벼랑 by KIM Seong-jong 김성종

Presentation

Title: 회색의 벼랑
Author: KIM Seong-jong 김성종
Read in 한국추리소설걸작선2, compiled by 한국추리작가협회

KIM Seong-jong is known as the greatest author of crime fiction of the 1970s and 1980s. This short story of 35 pages is available in the compilation of the best Korean detective novels edited by the Korean Crime Authors’ Society.

The setting

회색의 벼랑 is a fictional story based on a real abduction. In 1978, the South Korean actress CHOI Eun-hee 최은희 was abducted by North Korea and forced to make films for the state. CHOI Eun-hee was one of the greatest and most admired actresses of her time, but in the late 1970s, her career was declining. Disguised as a Hong Kong businessman, a North Korean agent persuaded her to go to Hong Kong, pretending to help her build a film-making company. In Hong Kong, she was abducted and sent to North Korea where she remained eight years.

In real life, CHOI Eun-hee’s ex-husband, film-maker SHIN Sang-ok 신상옥 was also abducted. KIM Seong-jong’s story focuses only on the actress, and though he creates a fictional actress whose name is CHAE So-hui 채소희, the details surrounding her abduction are very similar to what happened to CHOI Eun-hee.

Why I liked it

In only 35 pages, KIM Seong-jong recreates the events leading to CHOI Eun-hee’s abduction. It is not the story of something that could happen but something that did happen, as incredible as it may seem, and only thinking about it sends shivers down my spine.

KIM Seong-jong also gives a place to other characters whose fate has been tragically attached to this event. I don’t know if these characters are based on real people, but we can easily imagine that they have or could have existed.

It is particularly meaningful to read this story now, given that CHOI Eun-hee has died only last year (April 2018).

Learn more about CHOI Eun-hee’s abduction by North Korea (BBC)

If you want to read this story, you can buy it separately as ebook either on Yes24 or Ridibooks.