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The new Scandi noir? The Korean writers reinventing the thriller

The country has emerged as a surprising literary force as a novel by the ‘Korean Henning Mankell’ bags a six-figure deal and sparks a global bidding war

Last December, Korean novelist Un-su Kim set out on an eight-month deep-sea fishing trip as part of research for his next book. Unreachable by phone or email until next August, when his boat docks in Fiji, he has no idea that his thriller The Plotters has been the subject of a wildly enthusiastic auction in the US, where it recently sold to Doubleday for a six-figure sum. German publisher Europa Verlag has called Kim “the Korean Henning Mankell”, while publishers in the UK, Czech Republic and Turkey have placed offers, and international film companies are also battling for rights.

His agent, Barbara Zitwer, who plans to meet him in Fiji to reveal the news, believes Kim’s novel, about an organisation that masterminds assassinations, has caught a wave of interest in Korean thrillers – a previously unknown quantity. “The world is finally embracing them. Korean thriller writers are invigorating the genre,” she said. “They are pumping new life into it. Readers are tiring of Scandinavian thrillers – they crave something new.”

Korean writing can seem new to English readers due to the unique cadence and economy of the language; translator Deborah Smith described the process of changing Korean to English as “moving from a language more accommodating of ambiguity, repetition and plain prose to one that favours precision, concision and lyricism”. There is no grand tradition of mystery writing in Korea. Writers there are creating something entirely new: sparsely worded, stylistically sophisticated page-turners that incorporate ideas important to Korean society, such as family, loyalty, nature and hierarchy.

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8 Contemporary Japanese novelists (who aren’t Haruki Murakami)

When Japanese bookshops opened up at midnight on Feb. 24 for his book launch event, Haruki Murakami was back in the news and back on our shelves. Although no publication date has yet been set for the English translation of Killing Commendatore, if you’re looking for a contemporary J-lit fix already available in translation, here are eight other authors worth exploring.

1. Hiromi Kawakami

One of the big translation events of 2014 was Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. This story of two lonely people passing the Tokyo seasons together is an excellent place to begin. Famous for being quirky and sometimes surreal, but far less twee than the more renowned Banana Yoshimoto, Kawakami is a must for readers who love to luxuriate in captivating prose.

2. Fuminori Nakamura

Sampling elements of noir and crime, Fuminori Nakamura writes bleak, violent existential thrillers that peel back Tokyo’s scabs and dig around in its wounds. His prose is sparse and haunting, underscored with a black sense of humor. English-language publishers have taken an interest, which has lead to six of his books translated in four years. His latest, The Boy in the Earth, is a vivid, vital story about a man still attempting to deal with the abuse he suffered as a child. A previous novel, The Thief, is guaranteed to make any Tokyoite avoid the darker streets at night.

3. Hitomi Kanehara

Writing in a style that reflects the uneducated “street” voice of her characters, Hitomi Kanehara is notoriously difficult to translate. As a result, she still only has two short novels in English — Autofiction and Snakes and Earrings — as well as a handful of short stories. Both are harsh, cynical books dealing with young women outside mainstream Japanese society. Open and honest about self-destruction, sexual promiscuity and the murky world of Tokyo subcultures; Kanehara’s fiction is a short, sharp shock designed to startle and unsettle. And it’s all the better for it.

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