Book Review: The Plotters by Un-su Kim
By Larry ClowJanuary 30, 2019
The Plotters by Un-su Kim is a fantastical crime novel set in an alternate Seoul where assassination guilds compete for market dominance.
In Un-su Kim’s The Plotters, the assassins who stalk the shadowy streets of Seoul’s underworld are working stiffs. Killing others for fun and profit is a living—better than starving on the streets or toiling away in some factory far outside the city. But all jobs, even the most glamorously dangerous or highly profitable ones, eventually lose their allure.
For Reseng, the protagonist of The Plotters, the allure vanishes quietly. As the book opens, Reseng is ready to complete his latest job—the assassination of a retired general, quietly living out his old age with his dog, Santa. Reseng sets the general in his crosshairs but, instead of pulling the trigger, he hesitates—the moment isn’t right. And though he later completes the job, Reseng’s slight change in the plan unleashes an avalanche of trouble.
Assassins are having their latest pop culture moment—from John Wick and Killing Eve to the recent premiere of SyFy’s Deadly Class (itself based on the comic series from Image Comics), murdery anti-heroes are stabbing their way into hearts of fans. The Plotters takes those tropes and inverts them. From a genre perspective, it’s a refreshing shake-up. Kim’s assassins aren’t sexy lone wolves stylishly killing important targets; instead, they’re contractors plagued with job insecurity and tough competition. The gig economy’s brutal, even for killers.
That blend of realism and the fantastic gives The Plotters an incisive edge. Sure, Reseng grew up in a run-down library (known among the country’s assassins as the Doghouse) overseen by a cranky administrator named Old Raccoon, but there’s also paperwork to do and bosses to please. In this case, those bosses—the plotters—are shadowy figures who hire assassins through the Doghouse, while other criminal agencies painstakingly dictate their every move. For Reseng, it’s a fine arrangement—until too many doubts accrue, and he’s left with some unsettling questions.
“Don’t you wonder?” Chu asked. “Who’s telling you what to do, I mean. Who decides when you use the turn signal, when you step on the brake, when you step on the gas, when to turn left, when to turn right, when to shut up and when to speak?”
“Why are you wondering that all of a sudden?”
“I was standing there, looking at this girl who was just skin and bones, and I suddenly wondered who these plotters were anyway. I could have killed her with one finger. She was so scared, she just sat there frozen. When I saw how hard she was shaking, I wanted to find out exactly who was sitting at their desk, twirling their pen, and coming up with this bullshit plan.”
Reseng’s journey to discover who the plotters are opens up an off-kilter, fully-realized criminal underworld. From Bear, the pet crematorium owner who disposes of bodies for a generous fee, to Hanja, the slick upstart scheming to steal the Doghouse’s contracts, Kim engages in some impressive world-building. It’s reminiscent of Grosse Pointe Blank, with some additional commentary on South Korean history.
The Plotters is deeply funny and, surprisingly, full of heart. There are moments of transcendence and heartbreak mixed in with the knife fights and shootouts, and Kim balances it all beautifully. In one sequence, the narrative flashes back to the months Reseng spent in hiding as a factory worker. It’s an emotional gut punch, as affecting and stunning as the action sequences that end the book.
Speaking of action scenes—The Plotters delivers the goods. Between the quirky characters and literary allusions, there are some sequences that play as if they’d been ripped out of a Tarantino movie. It’s a difficult tone to strike, but Kim makes it look easy. It’s a book that switches effortlessly from melancholy to bloody slapstick to big-screen mayhem—always surprising and never predictable.
He raised a shaking hand to take a drag on his cigarette. Instantly, Reseng picked up the knife and in one swift move sliced off Minari’s fingers. The forefinger and middle finger sailed through the air, the cigarette still between them, and landed with a plop on the desk. Minari stared at his right hand then turned to look at his two fingers oozing blood, smoke still rising from the cigarette. As Reseng raised an eyebrow, Minari blanched and took a step back. Reseng calmly set the knife down.
“I’ll ask you one last time. Did Hanja set a date?”
The Plotters is Kim’s first novel to be translated into English and with any luck, we’ll see translations of his other novels—The Cabinet, about a group of people who erase their own memories, and Hot Blood, about the underworld denizens of Kim’s hometown of Busan. Kim is a fresh voice in crime fiction, and the more he sits at his desk, twirls his pen and comes up with books like The Plotters, the better.