The Ultimate Detective Novel: The Ultimate Child by Jang Yong-min

  • onDecember 10, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • byArnaud Vojinovic
L'enfant ultime (The Ultimate Child)
Tr. Seo Minwon

A detective novel that gradually enters the realm of the fantastic, The Ultimate Child establishes its author’s talent for weaving a tight and satisfying plot. The novel opens with a meeting between an FBI agent and Alice Rosa, an obese woman. At school, her daughter is nicknamed “disgusting little elephant”—clearly a reference to her mother’s weight, but also perhaps a nod to the animal’s famously long memory. Alice spends her days shut away in a New Jersey apartment, haunted by a love affair from a decade ago that lasted only five days.

There has been a murder at a luxury hotel in New York. The victim is an influential businessman, the type who pulls the strings and determines the fate of the world. Simon Ken, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation, receives a letter just one hour before the murder, predicting it and warning that there are more to come. Only Alice Rosa is able to give the agent the answers he needs by sifting through her memories. Soon it appears that the September 11 attacks are a key element linking these events, but the scattered pieces of the puzzle prevent any coherent view of the situation. Meanwhile, Simon is beset by his own doubts. His deceased wife, who had been a talented and highly successful journalist, had grown distant from him and seemed to be having an affair when she made her last phone call from the World Trade Center that fateful morning. His anger had prevented him from answering her call, and he has been gnawed by regret, tinged with resentment, ever since. Neither Simon nor Alice have been able to mourn the disappearance of their respective loved ones. For both protagonists, many questions remain unanswered.

We follow the course of Simon’s investigation as the story progresses. Relying on Alice’s memories of her relationship from a decade earlier, Simon tries to piece together the connections between high-level assassinations, personal histories, and Alice’s recollections of her lover who, in the few days that they spent together, mysteriously predicted the murders.

Jang Yong-min structures his story around the supposed existence of a secret organization deciding the fate of the world, and the idea of a global conspiracy is a central concern in the novel. We witness an attempt to destabilize China, linking the Dalai Lama with the territorial claims in the China Sea, the goal being to open the Chinese market to as much capital as possible and to create a private central bank. The naval crisis between China and Japan, with the United States lurking in the background, is an accurate reflection of real tensions in the China Sea, where each claim risks triggering a wider conflict. Fictional or not, the author’s choices border so closely on real possibilities that they deepen our understanding of regional issues.

Coming from the world of film where he began as a screenwriter, Jang reveals this experience in the text. His style is dynamic and incisive. The careful delineation of his plot, flitting effortlessly between present, past and future, allows it to develop in a way that leaves nothing to chance. The author’s decision to stage his action within certain confines, with his characters already in the clutches of a fate foretold a decade ago, is richly rewarding: this is gripping and unputdownable stuff.

The decision to decontextualize the novel from the peninsula and locate it within a shared universal culture where historical events and geostrategy are linked to an imagined “new world order” is likely to benefit readers unfamiliar with Korea.

With its suspenseful, razor-sharp plot and historically significant setting, The Ultimate Child is the ultimate detective novel, one that stands up well against the works of more seasoned writers, such as Kim Takhwan’s Banggakbon Murder Case or Jeong You-jeong’s Seven Years of Darkness. Bravo! I can’t wait for the next one.


by Arnaud Vojinovic
Writer, Intercultural Trainer