Crime Pays: The Plotters by Kim Un-su

  • onOctober 12, 2016
  • Vol.33 Autumn 2016
  • byJean-Noël Juttet
Les planificateurs (The Plotters)
Tr. Choi Kyungran and Pierre Bisiou

I’m not a reader of detective novels. I’ve never been able to rid myself of a vague condescension towards the genre, which often seems to forgo the real world in favor of fantasy—a little like, and yet so different from, fairy tales. So when I recently read Kim Un-su’s The Plotters, it was out of pure curiosity, intrigued as I was to see an author I admire (I deeply enjoyed his short stories and debut novel translated into French)1 offering readers his first detective novel—and a weighty one at that.

But I must confess to being completely sucked in, all condescension swiftly forgotten—first by the opening pages, then by the entire first chapter, and then by the novel as a whole. Laesaeng, a hired killer, has a victim in the sights of his sniper rifle: an elderly man calmly watering his garden in the company of his old black dog, talking to his flowers as he does so. The assassin asks himself: “Do I pull the trigger—right here, right now? If I do, I’ll have time to get back into town before midnight. I’ll run a nice hot bath… So pull the trigger. He must pull the trigger now. But Laesaeng doesn’t shoot. He lowers the barrel of his rifle. Not the right moment, he murmurs. Why it’s not the right moment, he can’t say. There must be a right moment for everything.”

More than a detective novel, this story has all the hallmarks of a thriller: traps, betrayals, cold-hearted violence, cynicism, smoothly performed assassinations. Laesaeng is taken in as a child by Old Raccoon, operator of a powerful syndicate of professional killers at the mysterious Library of Dogs, into which no readers venture. A modest hero, he practices the art of killing with efficiency, discretion, and a degree of nonchalance. His various contracts lead him into encounters with a host of unusual characters, such as the clandestine cremator who complains about a slump in profits, or the emancipated woman who tells other victims of domestic abuse to have their violent husbands assassinated. But, caught up in the spiral of violence, the hunter becomes the hunted when Hanja, another of Raccoon’s adopted children, starts his own rival group. Cue dramatic fight scenes between assassins armed with knives (in this world, honor is everything!) and a heroic, if somewhat conventional, ending.

But the defining aspect of this novel lies elsewhere, in the varying emotional states of our highly charismatic professional killer. Do I pull the trigger—right here, right now? In the many moments of introspection that accompany the action, I immediately recognized the tender and wounded soul, the warm yet disenchanted worldview, tinged also with melancholy, that so enthralled me in Kim's short stories and novel, Cabinet. This roman noir is also a social and psychological novel, ultimately not so different from the author’s previous offerings.

With The Plotters Kim Un-su, who has stated that he only wishes to write novels from now on (probably for the best, given our lack of interest in short stories in the West), gives us further confirmation of his talent, albeit in a different form. Since detective novels have become a particularly popular genre (in France, they account for one in every three novels sold) and crime really does pay, his future seems bright. Published to coincide with the Paris Book Fair in March 2016, where Korea was the much-lauded guest of honor, this thrilling novel has been reviewed by some of France’s biggest newspapers, including Le MondeLibération, and La Croix.

I shall say nothing of the translation, since to say nothing of a translation is to say that it is impeccable. 



by Jean-Noël Juttet
Literary Critic
Translator of novels by
Hwang Sok-yong and Lee Seung-U


Author's Profile

Kim Un-su has written three novels and one short story collection. He won the Munhakdongne Novel Award in 2006. His books have been translated into French, Japanese, and Chinese. He was invited to the Saint-Louis Literary Festival and the French literary festival, “Meeting.”