Last December, Korean novelist Un-su Kim set out on an eight-month deep-sea fishing trip as part of research for his next book. Unreachable by phone or email until next August, when his boat docks in Fiji, he has no idea that his thriller The Plotters has been the subject of a wildly enthusiastic auction in the US, where it recently sold to Doubleday for a six-figure sum. German publisher Europa Verlag has called Kim “the Korean Henning Mankell”, while publishers in the UK, Czech Republic and Turkey have placed offers, and international film companies are also battling for rights.
His agent, Barbara Zitwer, who plans to meet him in Fiji to reveal the news, believes Kim’s novel, about an organisation that masterminds assassinations, has caught a wave of interest in Korean thrillers – a previously unknown quantity. “The world is finally embracing them. Korean thriller writers are invigorating the genre,” she said. “They are pumping new life into it. Readers are tiring of Scandinavian thrillers – they crave something new.”
Korean writing can seem new to English readers due to the unique cadence and economy of the language; translator Deborah Smith described the process of changing Korean to English as “moving from a language more accommodating of ambiguity, repetition and plain prose to one that favours precision, concision and lyricism”. There is no grand tradition of mystery writing in Korea. Writers there are creating something entirely new: sparsely worded, stylistically sophisticated page-turners that incorporate ideas important to Korean society, such as family, loyalty, nature and hierarchy.
Other genre books by Korean authors include You-jeong Jeong’s third novel, The Good Son, due out in the UK this May, followed by JM Lee’s latest, The Gospel of the Murderer, about a series of killings in Jerusalem just before the crucifixion of Jesus.
Interest in the country’s literature has boomed over the last decade, according to research by the Man Booker International prize, gathered after Korean author Han Kang won for her novel The Vegetarian. Sales of Korean books have increasedfrom only 88 copies sold in the UK in 2001 to 10,191 in 2015, while the number of titles translated into English has doubled over the last five years, from 12 in 2013 to 24 in 2017.
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