Un-Su Kim’s English debut ‘The Plotters’ succeeds as a thriller, fails elsewhere

Tuesday, January 8, 2019 - 4:44pm

The world is familiar with the professional killer trope: “Star Wars,” the James Bond novels and even Pulp Fiction all include some reiteration of the same type of character. And for the right reason: Readers devour these stories. The remorseless, accessible killers exist in realms where the borders of reality are difficult to identify, and excitingly easy to contort.

Un-Su Kim takes this trope to a new level in his first book translated to English; all of the characters in "The Plotters" are assassins except for a select few. These are not paid killers who are hired by someone else for dramatic effect, the killers themselves are the central focus of the book. Kim looks deep into the killers’ humanity and at the complex socio-political sphere they operate within.

“The Plotters” settles its crosshairs over Reseng, a thirty-something Korean man who has been working as a for-hire assassin for years. Adopted by Old Raccoon (a vacant, older man who works in tandem with assassins) as a child, this world is all Reseng knows. He flourishes in an environment where men labelled “Plotters” take orders for homicides, in turn handing these orders and victim profiles over to assassins. It is an environment where corruption is ubiquitous, tacitly suggesting that, everyday, disappearances or political deaths — outright murder or not — are the result of the Plotters and their transactions.

While “The Plotters” at times seems unsure of what it is trying to accomplish plot-wise, it is in his characters that Un-Su Kim shines as a writer. The characters in the novel are diverse in temperament and realistically formed — greatly nuanced for the “typical” assassin type. While initially the novel is disproportionately saturated with men and (at times, the often accurately ludicrous) male perspective, Kim thankfully escapes this trough by the final half of his novel. He offers several female characters, most centrally Mina, who is, along with Reseng, one of the most fantastically formed characters. Mina is both flawed and a badass. She takes on stereotypical female propensities that authors often disregard when employing a “strong woman” archetype. She is annoyingly talkative, cares about her physical appearance and is physically meek. Simultaneously, however, she fights for a cause, is remarkably intelligent and remains the calmest amongst all of the characters in the face of peril. She is a shining example of Kim’s ability to craft truthful, balanced characters. Mina, while certainly imperfect, is a refreshing offer of a female character in a thriller novel. Authors molding (usually female) characters often feel the need to choose between good and bad, between “manic pixie” and socially altruistic. Mina, along with the many other characters of “The Plotters,” is allowed to be both.

The story of “The Plotters” is interesting. The writing is good, for the most part. There are certainly sloppy lines, especially when it comes to dialogue, though this perhaps can be attributed to the translation element of the novel. Depending on the intensity of the scene at hand, the book is not remarkably difficult to put down. There are gripping scenes —they just do not come with frequency.

Although its characters stand out, “The Plotters” slips into an ill-fated middle ground between literary fiction and the thriller-mystery fiction familiar in works such as “The Girl on the Train.” Kim seems unable to decide on one territory — or perhaps is just unwilling to examine both territories entirely at the same time. There are two or three especially moving scenes in the work where Reseng’s humanity (and sometimes his inability to adhere to it) is revealed. Principals of love and loss are toyed with eloquently.

However, these passages falter when Kim later neglects them, juggling instead with his thriller plot, trading blood and adrenaline for half-hearted examinations of literary themes every few chapters. It is difficult to be wholly enamored with “The Plotters,” especially when sincere themes seem diluted by a desire to continue to force moments of drama and violence.

Thrillers, both onscreen and read, are often made or broken by their ability to trick audiences and retain their attention for the span of the story. Characters such as Reseng and Mina — characters that feel remarkably authentic — do this uniquely, as it is hard not to lean into their stories and human depth. “The Plotters” is a good thriller for its willingness to investigate outside of the at-hand, adrenaline-begetting drama and the novel takes refreshing breaths. In the future, hopefully Kim expands the appeal of his work with even more of these voyages.