At the center of every noir novel is a Greek tragedy in modern dress. The mythical component, aspects of Joseph Campbell’s heroes’ journey, reveals itself to be an exercise in futility. Summed up by film lines like “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” or my personal favorite, “Some men get the world. Others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona,” the overriding message is that playing it straight is a sucker’s game. Blame fate or just call the system rigged, good loses every time.
But genre is not a static concept. Today’s noir novel looks and sounds very different from its predecessors, while still remaining true to the core themes and ideas. In South Korean writer Hye Young-Pyun’s The Law of Lines, two seemingly unconnected women are left looking for answers after a family member’s suicide. Se-oh Yun returns from a trip to the store to discover her father has cut the gas line, setting himself and their home on fire. He survives, his body covered in burns, only to die in the hospital a few days later. Se-oh learns from the police what she already suspected but had refused to acknowledge — that her father was deeply in debt. Threatened by a collection agent, having exhausted all his options and unable to see any other way out, he took his own life. What Se-oh cannot understand is how her beloved father could choose to leave her, a reticent young woman ill-equipped to deal with the world, all alone.
Ki-jeong Shin has a similar experience when the authorities contact her at work, asking her to come in and identify the drowned body of her half-sister. The two were never close. It had been years since they’d met in person, and Ki-jeong had been in the habit of ignoring her sister’s phone calls. She didn’t particularly like the illegitimate child her father brought home one day for Ki-jeong’s mother to raise, and this is both a source of guilt and the impetus for Ki-jeong’s search. She discovers that her sister had become involved in a pyramid scheme that preyed on college students and was in debt. But even knowing that, Ki-jeong, like Se-oh upon being told how and why her father died, still has a difficult time believing that her younger sister would take her own life. With very little information, just a few phone numbers from a cell phone, she starts delving into her sister’s past:
Ki-jeong felt guilty that she’d taken an interest in her sister only after her final moments had come and gone. She’d never really known her. And now here she was, imitating a detective just so she could quell her guilty conscience. She didn’t have to look any further than herself to find someone who’d neglected her sister.
Over several pages, Pyun takes the time to carefully, patiently, and precisely explain the downward spiral of those caught in debt. How a person borrows first from the large banks, then from the smaller ones, and finally from the money lenders as a last resort. How they borrow money believing they are buying time, when in truth they are only snowballing their situation. While predatory lending might seem a strange subject for a crime novel, white-collar crime has been pivotal to the plots of films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, in which a man is killed over real estate and water rights in California. The lurid incestuous side story we all remember is a twist put there to reinforce the lengths to which powerful men will go to sate their lust and greed. Because, while all hard-boiled crime fiction is fundamentally noir, not all noir is hard-boiled. We confuse the two because the stories are traditionally cosmopolitan and the detective, police or P.I., a well-known stock character. But noir can happen in the backwoods of Kentucky, in a decaying French villa, or on the dark web. Georges Simenon set his 1958 novel Le President within the library of a former French president. Every generation has their own cause for existential despair, allowing all the traditional indicators — including motive — to be continually reimagined.
Se-oh and Ki-jeong are not alone in their journey. Pyun introduces the point of view of a third character, Su-ho, the debt collector Se-oh holds responsible for her father’s death. Both women demonize others as an alternative to facing their own grief, despite being fully aware that they are displacing feelings of guilt. For Ki-jeong, the weight of her sadness and anger is piled onto the head of a spoiled student at the school where she teaches. Se-oh takes it one step further, entirely rebuilding her life on a foundation of revenge. She begins stalking Su-ho. She takes a job in a shop in the building where he lives with his mother. She plans out his murder and waits for the perfect moment to carry out her plan:
It was awful to sustain a life on thoughts of killing someone. Malice kept Se-oh alive, but it did not let her live. It fed her, but it also turned her stomach and made her throw up. It enabled her to bear the hours spent lying in the goshiwon, but it also gave her nightmares. It helped her live among others, but each time she saw other people, she fantasized about death and felt guilty. She was skeptical. If all she could think about was murder, if that was what filled her head day in and day out, then what was to become of her in the future?
Pyun uses the omniscient third-person narrator to look inside the minds of not only Se-oh and Ki-jeong, but Su-ho as well. Slowly she brings her two heroines together, throwing a few red herrings at her readers along the way. And when the crescendo of violence occurs — viscerally described and from an unexpected source — we are left all the more conflicted in its aftermath. Murder remains a staple of the genre, whether we’re talking about an actual death or a symbolic one; by the last page both the protagonist and society have lost pieces of their souls. Pyun understands this better than most. Sora Kim-Russell, who has translated almost all of Hye-young Pyun’s work available to English readers — including The Hole, winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award — has given us a linguistically nuanced novel, allowing the prose to be guided by the story. Her language conveys tenderness where it should, ruthlessness when it is called for, and we are the beneficiaries of her familiarity with this complex author.
Pyun and her contemporaries are no longer content with simply pushing the boundaries of genre — they are exploring its intersectionality as well. In this latest iteration of noir, they have moved past the beautiful dead girl staged like a broken doll and the doomed (because you can’t save a dead girl) male rescue fantasy she is meant to inspire. Instead, they are focused on subjects relevant to a more modern and diverse audience — racial tension, identity theft, and predatory debt. Crimes in which anyone can play the part of victim or hero. In Pyun’s case, she has populated her story with female characters who are not defined by their sexuality, their appearance, or their relationships to men. Se-oh, Ki-jeong, and Ki-jeong’s dead sister are all refreshingly and radically ordinary. Their situations are not so unusual as to appear exceptional; in fact, their lives are remarkably mundane. They could be your neighbors or relatives. They could be you. And this proximity makes everything that happens all the sadder and, at the same time, more interesting. Even the despair has been complicated by familiar feelings of frustration, paranoia, and ineffective rage.
Stripped of Hollywood glamour, this new noir is telling subtler stories while still focusing on the broader repercussions of corruption in all forms — social, political, economic, and moral. How the ripples of a single act of injustice perpetrated by one human being against another impact not just individuals but entire families and communities. And in the end, it arrives at the same conclusions that all great noir writing does. Untangling the mystery and getting at the truth doesn’t change anything. It just schools you on how much damage you can withstand.
Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic and author of the blog Reader At Large.