Kim’s protagonist, 32-year-old Reseng, began life as someone’s discard. Found in a garbage can outside a convent, he was raised by the nuns until the age of 4, when he was adopted by an assassin known as Old Raccoon. The love of Old Raccoon’s life is his immense library, and yet he neither sent the boy to school nor taught him to read.
Even so, Old Raccoon caught Reseng with his nose in a book at the age of 9. Given the run of the library, the boy had “deciphered how the Korean alphabet worked by matching pictures to words.” Old Raccoon reacted to the discovery by warning that “reading books will doom you to a life of fear and shame.” But Old Raccoon’s prophecy has not come true. For one thing, Reseng reads the way some people knit or doodle. “I don’t read for any particular reason,” he says. “. . . I just don’t know what else to do with my free time.”
But books sometimes fail to distract. After making a kill, Reseng typically numbs himself by getting drunk on beer — a tactic he considers perfectly natural. “What would be really strange, he thought, was if someone who earned their living by killing others felt revitalized by it.” Reseng views assassination as his fate, which he accepts in full knowledge that he himself is likely to be offed someday — an outcome to be resisted not because he fears death, but because going peacefully would be beneath him. As Seoul’s assassins start picking one another off in an internecine war, Reseng graduates from potential victim to active target.
While going about his work — and, later, defending himself — Reseng interacts with one vivid character after another. In addition to his bibliomaniacal father, there is the Barber, who not only cuts hair and shaves faces but also devotes his razor to less benign pursuits. And there are three oddball women: a homicidal avenger who is fond of “spicy stir-fried tripe with a side of liver and blood sausage”; her crippled sister, who laughs more than seems humanly possible; and Old Raccoon’s cross-eyed ex-librarian, who makes a great snoop because no one has the nerve to ask her what she’s looking at. Turns out the three women are conspiring to end the vicious cycle of assassination — a project Reseng mocks as “an awesome plot to save the world.” It is also a task for which the women hope to enlist him as the “idiot . . . to pull it off.”
“The Plotters” is being touted as possibly doing for Korea what so many Scandinavian crime books have done for their countries: give readers a feel for a lesser-known part of the world by showing how its inhabitants handle crime and punishment. That’s a lofty but misguided goal, because the Seoul in which this novel’s action takes place is more dreamscape than gritty reality.
“The Plotters” is no primer for a visit to Korea. What it does offer is a vivid portrait of a mesmerizing central character — the stoic Reseng. It will also keep readers delightfully off-balance. In “The Plotters” Kim has mixed bookishness, crackpots and commissioned murder into a rich and unsettling blend.
Dennis Drabelle is a former mysteries editor of Book World.
By Un-Su Kim
Translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
Doubleday. 304 pp. $25.95