MARCH 30, 2019
IN HIS INTRIGUING and playfully fun new hitman thriller The Plotters, Un-su Kim imagines a world where South Korea’s murder-for-hire industry is both benefiting from a recent economic boom and already in steep decline. No longer are the choicest jobs given to the best tradesmen. They are instead being farmed out to the lowest bidder: people and organizations that don’t care about quality, who take no pride in their work, fly-by-night operations that spring up and disappear themselves without anyone noticing.
The hero of the book is Reseng, a young man operating at the peak of his powers near the top of his chosen profession, as an assassin. In Reseng’s case, chosen profession means a profession he was chosen for at a young age. As an orphan teased as having been “found in a garbage can in front of a nunnery,” he was raised in a library overseen by Old Raccoon, one of the last holdouts from the (relatively) old days, a keeper of traditions and secrets. He is Reseng’s alternately cranky and concerned mysterious father figure, sad and withdrawn in the way sage old-timers are supposed to be in this kind of fare, dismayed by the way their world is changing.
That change is personified in Hanja, a contemporary of Reseng’s and former pupil of Old Raccoon’s who has struck out on his own to modernize their archaic ways of doing business. Hanja’s making a figurative killing and choking out his business rivals, absorbing the strongest and killing off the weakest among his competitors, leaving Old Raccoon’s organization (nicknamed The Doghouse) his last major challenger for the contracts that come from the plotters.
No one knows who the plotters are, but everyone fears them. They are the masterminds who devise the downfall of various targets: businessmen, politicians, gangsters, generals, or seemingly random citizens whose reason for being worth all the trouble and expense of an elaborate hit their killers can only guess at.
In The Plotters’s opening chapter, Reseng is on the job and at a personal crossroads. He spies on his latest target, a high-ranking military officer, from the cover of a forest behind the man’s cottage. He watches the mark play with his own prized loyal hunter, a handsome and fearsome mastiff who chases down thrown toys and retrieves them for his master without ever wondering why they were thrown. Maybe Reseng sees something of himself in the beast, also a killing machine that is frightening and beautiful and loyal to a master whose mind is an unfathomable mystery: “The ferocious mastiff that had once hunted lions had been reduced to a clown.”
Or perhaps Reseng is beginning to tire of killing. Whatever the reason, he tells himself that the moment is not right and decides to wait.
He wasn’t sure why it wasn’t the right time. Only that there was a right time for everything. A right time for eating ice cream. A right time for going in for a kiss. And maybe it sounded stupid, but there was also a right time for pulling a trigger and a right time for a bullet to the heart.
Reseng is discovered by his target sleeping in the woods and claims that he is camping and hunting to explain the rifle that he carries. Neither Reseng nor the reader is entirely certain that the flimsy excuse is believed, but Reseng next finds himself a guest of the man he is there to kill. The officer opens his home and treats his guest — and designated assassin — to food, drink, and engaging conversation, and it is only after getting to know him that Reseng feels the time is right to finally kill him.
Throughout The Plotters, Reseng’s character develops and evolves through intimate conversations with the people he kills: the officer, an inconvenient prostitute, another assassin who still appreciates the old ways. Through his interactions with each of them he works out his plan for the rest of his life, and how he will choose what to do next: go down with stubborn Old Raccoon’s out-of-touch ways or embrace the new late-capitalism-entering-early-cannibalism stage of the industry and all of its lucrative opportunities by throwing in with Hanja.
Ironically, the overthrow of three decades of military dictatorship, a return to democratically elected civilian presidencies, and the brisk advent of democratization led to a major boom in the assassination industry. […] The boom really took off when corporations followed the state’s lead in outsourcing to plotters. Corporations generated far more work than the state, and the contractors’ primary clientele shifted from public to private. […] The principles of the market hadn’t changed since it first sprang into being. Whoever provided a better service at a lower price was the winner. Hanja […] transformed the once-messy, free-for-all plotting world into a clean, convenient supermarket.
After a couple of Reseng’s closest friends and colleagues are killed under mysterious circumstances, each murdered by a highly skilled assassin with a predilection for knife work, Reseng is shaken by Old Raccoon’s stoic reaction to the news. The perceived coolness in the old man as he prepares their bodies for cremation awakens the first seeds of doubt in Reseng about what he is doing with his life.
[T]here was no retaliation, no punishment, no investigation. Old Raccoon didn’t even get angry, even though Trainer had stood by him for three decades. He’d simply washed Trainer’s body, with its multiple stab wounds from what had clearly been a vicious battle, and quietly cremated him in Bear’s incinerator. It was a gloomy funeral: Reseng had been the only mourner with Old Raccoon, who had silently scattered Trainer’s ashes from the top of a windswept hill.
“Aren’t you going to do something about it?” Reseng had asked.
“That’s how it is for assassins. You can’t knock over the chessboard just because you lost a pawn.”
That’s how it is. Those were Old Raccoon’s parting words for the man who’d stood by his side for thirty years.
After a brief attempt at a normal life — a mundane job and a bout of young love — Reseng returns to the only role that makes any sense to him: a loyal killer at his master’s side in The Doghouse.
Animal imagery is used throughout The Plotters, which is populated with characters named Old Raccoon and Bear (who disposes of the trade’s dead in the ovens of his cover business, a crematorium for pets). One character believes that “people should emulate whales,” noble giants who accept death when their time comes, but laments that instead “people had grown as small and crafty as rats, and that the days of taking slow, huge, beautiful strides had vanished. The age of giants was over.”
After the opening image of the mastiff, dogs also return. At one juncture, Reseng tells his best friend Chu (who resents Reseng’s ability to and love for reading books — a passion also discouraged by Old Raccoon, who tells him, “Reading books will doom you to a life of fear and shame”) about one of the classic tomes in Old Raccoon’s library, The Blue Wolves.
“It’s the story of eight of Genghis Khan’s warriors. Plenty of animals like you in that book. It took the Blue Wolves just ten years to build the largest empire in the world.”
“What happened to them after?”
“They moved into a fortress and turned into dogs.”
A finer point is put on the imagery later when Reseng is asked why the library that Old Raccoon uses to dispatch his killers from is named The Doghouse.
“[W]hat kind of name is that for a library? The Doghouse? Are you trying to insult humanity’s noble world of the mind?”
“Perhaps we need to start with your prejudiced notion that books and dogs don’t belong together. […] You might even say this library is the spiritual heart of dogdom — the canine Vatican, if you will.”
Reseng considers his place at the center of a shift in his profession. He knows that Old Raccoon’s archaic mess is being swept away by Hanja’s clean and efficient machinery, that the noble wolves who built an empire are beginning the demeaning process of domestication (turning into dogs). And it is only now that Reseng’s self-awareness during the process and ability to read and reflect may actually doom him to that life of fear and shame.
If all of the allegorical and philosophical stuff makes the proceedings sound like a drag, don’t worry, The Plotters, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell, is a lot of fun. Criminal underworlds are the playground of writers and filmmakers of every brow level, and Un-su Kim’s is a wild tour. Rumors, legends, and weird traditions hint at enough lore to fill its own Tolkienesque historical tome, and with its elaborate alternate reality, The Plotters’s first convenient comparison may be to the ever-expanding John Wick movies, but a closer match would probably be Michael Winner’s 1972 Charles Bronson vehicle The Mechanic (a.k.a. Killer of Killers), with its global secret society of professional killers and slightly less cartoonish action.
The action though. It’s worth noting here.
For fans of 21st-century Korean crime films, one of the distinctions that make them stand out from their Hollywood counterparts is the scarcity of guns and a heavy reliance on sharp and pointy objects to get deadly. In many of the best examples of the region’s genre offerings, most of the violence is committed with knives and hatchets — and that marks it as savagely special. For readers familiar with (and fond of) films like Hong-jin Na’s The Yellow Sea (2010), Jee-woon Kim’s I Saw the Devil (2010), or Hoon-jung Park’s New World (2013), the moment in The Plotters when knives finally come out may elicit a thankful “right on” to the deities that govern the stabbiest crime films being made today.
Another fun touch in the book concerns Reseng’s post-kill routine. After the successful conclusion of an assignment, he goes on a strictly observed week-long beer bender, shut inside his apartment. During this time, he wallows in no particular emotional state, but the glut and purge, the allowance to get absolutely messy inside a tightly controlled time and space, is important.
The trope of training and conditioning passages and montages in books and films about specialized danger-man vocations is expected, but sidestepped and subverted here by presenting a skilled professional of high intelligence fully developed on page one whose routine is explored, but only on the back end. The come down is fleshed out with the loving attention to exacting detail usually reserved for cardio conditioning, one-handed pushups, or blindfolded weapons breakdowns and assemblies; here are the supplies you’ll need and why, what kind of space is best, how much time should be allowed. Also, the punishment to the body, the abuse of the temple, the reversing of all of that hard-won mastery over mind and body in favor of raw emotive exploration and devastation is a refreshing take on familiar ground.
And it is during one of these beer weeks that the central mystery at the heart of The Plotters gets its jumpstart. During a regimented session of vomiting, Reseng discovers an explosive device planted inside his toilet. Was it meant to kill him or warn him? And who would leave it? After a lifetime dedicated to violence and surrounded by professionals who deal in death, how good are the chances that he already knows a friend or colleague who will eventually be his own killer?
Reseng is determined to find out. His mission, the first taken on his own, will cost him a fortune and will probably kill him in the end. And the truth, if discovered, will almost certainly not make him happy.
The Plotters walks in the traditions of the noble detective and the samurai while spinning some new chewy bits probably best not mimicked. By the end, heroism rises out of the carnage to trump the nihilistic capitalism in a rousing climax.