End times approach for a deadly profession
as only as Old Raccoon. Yet the building is no mere home to yellowing pages rarely turned. Known as The Doghouse, it is headquarters to “every major assassination in South Korea’s modern history”.
Another occupant, the portly Bear, specialises in cremation and body disposal. In these lowly and degraded days — we learn early on of “the plummeting cost of assassinations” — he relies on dead dogs and pet disposal to make ends meet.
All in all, these are end days in the death trade, with final scores being settled and dissenters being picked off for sport. Another older man, we learn soon enough, is a general from the nearly forgotten days of South Korea’s military dictatorship. Drinking tea post-kill with Bear, Reseng ponders his country’s history as much as his own: “Black tea is steeped in imperialism. That’s what gives it its flavour. Anything this flavourful has to be hiding an incredible amount of carnage.”
Yet the carnage is more than a distant imperial memory. Chu, a fellow assassin and old friend of Reseng, has recently abandoned the trade mid-contract, having spared the life of a target and in turn placed one on his own back. The plot is an escalating series of claims and counterclaims, contracts and countercontracts. Slowly establishing his corrupt milieu, Kim patiently sketches his warring factions before set- ting them loose on each other, in ways too involved to be spoiled here.
There is an almost comically exaggerated nature to Kim’s plotting and connected universe that is reminiscent of the Keanu Reeves movie John Wick, where not only is everyone in town a hired killer, but they all stay in the same hired killer hotel trading gold coins and bullets.
The world of The Plotters is likewise claustrophobically narrow but trades the ebullience of an action movie for a sensibility that deftly counterbalances insanity with inertia. For every act of bloodletting, there’s a sit-down.
What lets the book down is its frequently clumsy prose and clunky dialogue, which could be partly due to translation: “Pull that pea-sized brain out of your arse for once and think outside the box. Look at the big picture”; “Her eyes were like daggers”; “Reseng had no rules. Not having rules was his only rule.” was a foreign correspondent in East Asia for 16 years.
Although cliches of this sort are always lamentable, they are rarely a hindrance to a book’s success. Judging from the numerous translations and sales the novel has already enjoyed, it’s clear that a clean, clear language lightly dusted with the familiar is the way to go.
If the novel’s aesthetic is familiar, its vision of Korea is likewise more genre than actual, all smoky rooms and scantily clad prostitutes that could, with minimal changes, be placed almost anywhere else in the world.
Despite the early killing of a military figure, gestures towards history are for the most part ignored. An ahistorical fatalism reigns. As Reseng gloomily notes late in the novel, “It’s just an empty chair spinning in circles. The moment the chair is empty, someone else will rush to sit in it.” is a writer and critic.