Korean Thriller Novels on the Rise: Overturning the Scandinavian Reign

Written by Kiran Gokal

With the phenomenon of Oldboy and the recent popularity of Train to Busan, Korean cinema has established its position high in the crime thriller genre, creating a new generation of widely praised films. When I think of Korean thriller films, I think of action-packed films balanced with drama, comedy, and beautifully crafted, complex characters, in a way that is quite rare in Hollywood films. Simply just acknowledging the popularity of Korean thriller films, it’s no surprise that Korean thriller novels are also on the rise and aiming high. In her article in The Guardian, Alison Flood discusses a particular Korean novelist by the name of Un-Su Kim whose recent novel The Plotters was subject to a grand auction in the US and landed a six-figure sum. Korean thriller novels, it seems, have been caught in a wave of interest in recent years. This fact was strengthened by the praise and popularity following Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian that sparked a flare of interest into the country’s literature.

Following the popularity of widely consumed Scandinavian thrillers from authors such as Henning Mankell, Korean thrillers are overturning this by giving readers something new. Korean literature and its style is much different than the kinds of mystery and crime novels we are used to. The language itself is much simpler—“accommodating to ambiguity, repetition, and plain prose”—which gives it a unique touch. The tradition of writing in Korea is something completely different: “sparsely worded, stylistically sophisticated page-turners that incorporate ideas important to Korean society, such as family, loyalty, nature and hierarchy.”

The rise in interest from not only readers but publishers themselves is promising: Ailah Ahmed at Little, Brown speaks triumphantly on Korean fiction, affirming a growing market for psychological thrillers that may be a bit saturated and need something different.  She’s currently in the process of publishing a novel called The Good Son by Chi-Young Kim that tells the story of “a seemingly perfect student, who wakes up covered in blood, with the body of his mother downstairs.” With the recent popularity of Blake Crouch’s psychological thriller Dark Matter, the pool of current thriller novels could use a dose of representation while also introducing novels of a genre we are familiar with from a country and society that offers something different.  

However, despite the continued popularity of crime thriller novels in the US, in Korea thrillers are not regarded as well—thriller writers are generally considered more storytellers rather than writers or authors. I found this a very interesting opinion considering the way Korean crime thriller films dominate box offices all over the country and globally. Praised authors are generally those who studied literature or creative writing and are alumni to the industry. Despite the opinions surrounding the genre in Korea, the promise of these novels to be translated into the western publishing world offers a new set of conventions to thriller novels that will hook readers into its realm. No doubt Un-Su Kim’s novel The Plotters will be cause a buzz, who’s already three months into his eight-month deep sea fishing adventure for his next novel and whose writing has been coined to include shades of Murakami. I know that I, for one, can’t wait to read it as soon as it hits shelves.

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