JM Lee

The Boy Who Escaped Paradise

Sold to Jessica Case, Pegasus Books/North America , to be published August 2016 in hardback.
Chi Young Kim,translator.
Million Books/Korea

A cinematic story about the bonds of loyalty and the murky line dividing truth and falsehood, The Boy Who Escaped from Paradise follows the decade-long odyssey of Ahn Gil-mo, a young autistic math genius who interprets the world through numbers, formulas, and mathematical theories as he escapes from the most isolated country in the world and travels the world, searching for the only family he has left. The novel begins with a murder in New York; the victim’s face has been wiped with disinfectant and numbers and symbols are written in blood around it. Gil-mo is arrested on the scene. Because of his North Korean background and his crime-filled escapades, the CIA becomes involved in the investigation, and one operative, Angela, uses various mathematic theories to gain his trust and access his thought process. The narrative veers into the past and back to the present as Angela begins to unravel Gil-mo’s life story.

Born a son of a talented but disgraced Pyongyang doctor, Gil-mo is living a fairly privileged life until his father, a secret Christian, is incarcerated in a political prison overseen by a harsh, cruel warden. With nowhere else to go, Gil-mo is imprisoned with him. Gil-mo manages to parlay his math skills into an office job instead of being forced into hard labor like most of the other prisoners. His mentor, a fellow prisoner who oversees Gil-mo’s accounting tasks, has a daughter, the spirited Yeong-ae, who becomes a good friend. A dreamer who craves a bigger life for herself, she later escapes from prison. The warden causes the death of Gil-mo’s father, and after that life-changing event, Gil-mo escapes the prison to try to track down Yeong-ae. He ends up escaping the country with another lost soul who goes by the name Flying Fish, and becoming involved in the underworld at the North Korean-Chinese border. Gil-mo and his friend head to Shanghai, ferrying drugs, before being taken in by Kunlun, a major crime boss. With Gil-mo’s discovery that Kunlun’s accountant is stealing from the powerful head, the young man becomes Kunlun’s trusted assistant and accountant. As Gil-mo begins representing his boss in various business transactions, he discovers that Yeong-ae has become Kunlun’s latest lover.

Kunlun, however, is assassinated, and Yeong-ae flees Shanghai. Gil-mo and Flying Fish make it to Macao, following rumors that Yeong-ae has settled there. The two become legendary gamblers, counting cards and swindling casinos, and as they begin to make piles of cash, they bump into Yeong-ae, who is working as a singer at a club. But after one too many an illegal game, a shootout ensues. Flying Fish is killed. Meanwhile, Yeong-ae has fled to Seoul and Gil-mo follows. In Seoul, Gil-mo is released into the custody of the prison warden from North Korea, who, with Yeong-ae, uses Gil-mo as a pawn in inheritance fraud. By the time Gil-mo discovers this, the warden and Yeong-ae have fled to New York.

In New York, the warden obtains a green card by providing authorities with false information about North Korea’s nuclear program while pimping Yeong-ae out to find new victims of fraud. He becomes increasingly hungry for power. Meanwhile, Gil-mo decides to follow Yeong-ae and enters the U.S. illegally via Mexico. He works at a sushi restaurant and by chance meets Yeong-ae, who is a frequent customer as the girlfriend of an important financier. To save Yeong-ae, Gil-mo kills the prison warden. 

Over seven days in captivity, Gil-mo reveals these crimes to Angela through seven mathematical puzzles. Angela comes to believe that Gil-mo has an intellectual disability and cannot be held accountable for the murder. But is she merely a pawn in Gil-mo’s plan, or is he truly innocent of everything that happened?

Through extensive research, celebrated author Jung-myung Lee delves into aspects of North Korea that are not widely known, including the daily lives of Pyongyang citizens, card sections in mass games, the USS Pueblo incident, the underground Christian movement, and the Asian drug trade, while depicting lifelong friendships nurtured despite severe persecution and famine. This rollercoaster of a novel draws the reader in with vivid characters trapped by ideology, greed, and despair, questioning the gray line between good and evil, truth and falsehood, purity and depravity. Through it all, Lee’s characters preserve their humor, belief in love, and passion for freedom.

This fast-paced, thrilling read will resonate with anyone who has yearned for a different life. The Boy Who Escaped from Paradise is reminiscent of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, Vicas Swarup’s Slumdog Millionaire, and Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner.

The Investigation

Translated by Chi-Young Kim
Paperback publication in UK – February 2015, Pegasus Books/US, August 2015. 
Million Books/Korea.  Pan Macmillan published in April 2014, Sellerio/Italy, winter 2014, Michel Lafon/France,Grijalbo/Spain, Fall 2014, Sold to Swiat Ksiazki Sp. z.o.o/Poland. Film being produced by Zion Entertainment , CJ Entertainment, director attached  Kyu-Dong Min.

The novel opens with a bang in Fukuoka, with young prison guard Yuichi Watanabe tasked with solving the murder of fellow guard Dozan Sugiyama, who was feared and despised for his brutality. Before his conscription, Watanabe was a quiet, scholarly young man who spent the majority of his time in his family's used bookstore, reading classics from around the world-Shakespeare, Goethe, Rilke. He goes about enforcing prison rules without much verve, yearning for the war to be over and dreaming of returning to his former erudite life. At the beginning of the murder investigation, Watanabe believes it is an open-and-shut case. Choi Chi-su, a powerful and vocal leader of the Korean independence movement, had numerous clashes with the late warden, and he confesses immediately upon questioning. But Watanabe is not satisfied: why, after all, would a seasoned freedom fighter like Choi would confess so easily? He begins to interrogate Choi and Yun Dong-ju, a sensitive Korean poet incarcerated for participating in anti-Japan activities and widely respected by fellow inmates.

Watanabe finds a kindred spirit in Yun, and they tentatively begin to veer away from standard interrogations toward freewheeling discussions about literature and poetry. As he learns more about Yun, his poetry, and Yun's surprising bond with Sugiyama, Watanabe discovers an entirely different aspect of the late warden. The tale meanders back to Suigyama's life, during which he meticulously policed the prisoners both in person and as the official censor. Sugiyama's budding interest in literature is movingly interwoven with excerpts the late warden found meaningful; quotes from classics, Yun's own poetry, and banned books. Inspired by Yun's tragic life and his powerful posthumous collection of poetry, Lee celebrates the poet's work by situating it in the context of oppression and persecution Yun experienced during his lifetime. Lee's pulsating, action-driven prose is balanced by Yun's yearning for freedom, both for himself and his homeland, creating an elegiac tribute to the importance of literature and the tenuous bonds formed from a shared love of art and literature across barriers created by circumstance: the tension between the imprisoned and the guards; the colonized and colonizers; the oppressed and the oppressors.

Sugiyama is a compelling figure, whose brutal violence is informed by a traumatic tragedy in his formative years. The question of culpability in times of war is also deftly woven into this lyrical novel, deconstructing the psyche of the oppressor in humanistic ways and querying whether inaction in the face of brutality is just as unforgivable as committing a crime.

Lee's words leap off the page with urgency, embodying the fear and instincts of self-preservation that hinder one's own moral code from triumphing over cruelty, and create flawed but human portraits of both the Japanese and Korean characters.

This gripping novel is sure to attract a wide audience. Reminiscent of stories such as Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, The Investigator will appeal to those who enjoy Stephen King-like nail-biters as well as to those who are drawn to incisive, lyrical treatments of individual moral choices made during wartime, such as Chang-rae Lee's The Surrendered. The novel will also interest those who are drawn to World War II-era tales about war, humanity, and life as a second-class citizen. Wrenching and fierce, this novel allows the reader to empathize with the flawed and all-too-human individuals who are thrown together by forces beyond their control. This novel is especially potent in our current era, rife with of political imprisonment, oppression, and wars around the world.

The Gospel of the Murderer

Eunhangnamu Publishers/Korea, 2015. North American rights sold to Kate Miciak/Ballantine Bantam Dell. 

Translated by Man-Asian Award winning translator Chi Young Kim of PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM, THE INVESTIGATION, THE HEN WHO DREAMED SHE COULD FLY.

Partial in English,complete translation in six months.

A fascinating, fast-paced political thriller with a chain of murders at the center. The story is set in Jerusalem, in the seven days before the crucifixion of Jesus. Over the course of four days, four brutally murdered bodies are found. All the bodies have a riddle written in blood next to them, and their backs have been skinned. The High Priest commands a murderer/spy, Matthias, with solving the crime, and the Romans task an erudite man, Theophilus, with the same task. As they figure out who is behind this, they face enormous pressure to investigate Jesus and his disciples. It turns out that a Mithra priest has built an underground cavern to that religion with the help of Roman soldiers, and he is convinced that committing these murders and pointing the finger at Jesus is a way to get him crucified, get the Jews outraged and foment rebellion, and for the Romans to crush them and wipe away Jerusalem. This, in his crazed mind, is the best way to build a temple to Mithra in the city. In the end, the Mithra priest, Matthias (who refuses to point the finger at Jesus and who needs to be eliminated so that the truth doesn't come out), and Jesus (who must be killed for political reasons) are crucified. Despairing, Theophilus watches this all happen, having failed to convince the authorities to let Matthias and Jesus go free or to convince Matthias to escape.   Mr. Lee does a wonderful job conveying what life must have been like back then, and is particularly adept at demonstrating the different political interests and conflicts that build up to the inevitable climax: the Romans and their desire to consolidate power over Jerusalem; the Jewish upper class and their desire to garner more power; the Zealots who are trying to wrest power from the Romans; and the insane Mithra priest who schemes to ruin Judaism and erect a temple to Mithra in Jerusalem. It's a thrilling read.  

The Painter of Wind

Published by Million Books/Korea and sold over 600,000 copies. Sold to Sperling/Italy, Hayakawa/Japan, People’s Literature Publishing House/China, Azoth Books/Taiwan

A sweeping historical romance with murder and mystery set in the world of royal painters during the Joeson Dynasty of the 18th Century, Inspired by real events and people, this panoramic spectacular story of art and intrigue involves a young female painter who was forced to disguise herself as a man in order to fulfill her artistic ambitions and become a famous painter. Only when she falls in love, is her secret revealed.

This has been compared to The Girl With the Pearl Earring.

An upscale commercial novel for readers all over the world.

The Korean book is 258 pages and the book has been adapted into a hugely successful mini-series and feature film in Korea.