End times ap­proach for a deadly pro­fes­sion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Adam Rivett

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.

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