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From the Margins to the Center: Korean Mystery Literature




Korean mystery literature originated in the unique conditions of the Japanese occupation. Introduced under the names of spy novels, detective stories, and detective novels, mystery literature was translated and adapted mainly from newspaper serials. A representative work is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Three Students, which Haemongsaeng adapted and published as Faithful Servent on Taeseomunyesinbo in 1918. Most of the works serialized in newspapers at the time were re-translations of works by Ruiko Kuriowa, a Japanese author of adapted novels. By the 1920s, adapted mystery novels moved out of newspapers and were published in magazines such as Hacksaengkye, Chungnyeon, and Dongmyung, and emphasized that they were intellectual works for readers with a certain level of reading ability, such as educated young adults and students.
However, the writers who translated and wrote mystery literature were negative about being known as mystery writers and tried to hide it if they could. In the 1920s, authors such as Yang Ju-Dong, Lee Ha-Yoon, Kim Hwan-Tae, Kim Kwang-Seop, Lee Heon-Gu, Kim Yoo-Jung, Lee Seok-Hoon, Ahn Hoe-Nam, and Bang In-Geun published mystery novels. Still, due to the public’s perception of mystery literature as cheap entertainment, they used nicknames such as Haemongsaeng, Pipisaeng, Spring Breeze, Polaris, Red Light, and Heinrich instead of their real names. This perception, deeply rooted in the minds of intellectuals and the public in the early days of Korean mystery literature, was both a direct and indirect factor in keeping mystery literature on the peripheries for so long.
But today, things have changed. Korean mystery literature has become a hot topic in the global publishing market.


The Korean covers of the book The Only Child

The Italian covers of the book The Only Child

The French covers of the book The Only Child

The Korean, Italian, and French covers of the book The Only Child



One of the recent trends in Korean mystery literature is that books are often recognized abroad before they go popular in Korea. Seo Mi-Ae’s second full-length mystery novel, The Only Child (Elixir), published in 2010, along with her earlier work, The Garden of Dolls (Everyway), did not receive much marketing support from the publisher and was not well received by readers. However, it turned out to be a stroke of good fortune that the publisher translated the first part of the novel and a general summary and took it to the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany the year after its publication. Although the publisher (Noble Mind, the publisher of the first edition) no longer exists, the book benefited from the National Translation Grant program, and overseas rights began to be sold, as publishing officials insisted on the rest of the translations through their agencies.
The author, Seo Mi-Ae, says that signing with Harper Collins, an American publishing giant, made it easier for her to strike copyright deals with publishers from other countries. Being published by Harper Collins acted as a kind of guarantee check. As a result, The Only Child has been published in 16 countries, including the United States, Germany, France, and Italy, and the subsequent book, All Secrets Have a Name (Elixir), released in 2021, is also going through publishing contracts seamlessly. The book The Night Your Star Disappeared (Elixir) sold more than 50,000 copies, which is unusual for a mystery novel. It is an impressive number considering the domestic mystery market, where it is difficult to get past the first edition.
Meanwhile, the rights deal for video production is working out well. The book The Only Child was with Carnival Film & Television in the UK before they reclaimed the rights and signed a deal with a new production company to make the video of the entire trilogy, including All Secrets Have a Name. The book The Night Your Star Disappeared has also been picked up for a copyright deal for dramatization, and the movie of the same Korean title (the English title is “Her Hobby,” different from the Korean title), based on the medium-length story Her Secret Hobby (Everyway), premiered at the 27th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) this year and was highly appreciated by the audience.


The book cover of Her Secret Hobby

international film poster of Her Secret Hobby

The book cover and international film poster of Her Secret Hobby



There are many cases in which the works of authors known for their pure literature in Korea are introduced overseas first, and become absorbed into the category of mystery literature. A representative work is Yun Ko-Eun’s The Disaster Tourist (Misumsa Publishing). This novel depicts the harmful effects of human greed and capital, centered on the main character, Go Yona, who works for a travel agency that organizes tours to areas devastated by disasters. Although The Disaster Tourist was classified as pure literature when it was published in Korea, translator Lizzie Buehler described it as a “satirical Korean eco-thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility” in the English introduction. The book The Disaster Tourist went on to win the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA) Dagger for Crime Fiction in Translation in 2021. This is especially remarkable considering that this is the first of Yun’s works to be published in English-speaking countries.
Kim Un-Su, who won the 12th Munhakdongne Fiction Award in 2006 for his novel Cabinet (Munhakdongne), is known overseas as a representative of the “K-thriller” genre. His latest novel, The Plotters (Munhakdongne), is a thriller that theorizes that there were always plotters behind historical assassinations, and it has been sold to more than 20 countries, including France, Germany, Japan, and the UK, which is significant because the deal was signed before the English version was even published. It is said that Doubleday, a subsidiary of the multinational publishing group Penguin Random House, acquired its copyrights in the US after paying a billion-dollar advance. The novel was nominated for the Grand Pix de Litte’ra Policie’re in 2016, being the first Korean author to receive the award, and was chosen as one of the “15 Best Thrillers of the Winter” by the Chicago Review of Books and “Books to Read in January” by the crime fiction webzine CrimeReads.
Pyun Hye-Young’s The Hole (Munji Publishing) was an adaptation of the short story Caring for Plants (included in the book A Boy May Get Older Easily published by the same publishing company), translated and published in The New Yorker magazine, into a full-length novel. When the book was published on August 1 in the US, she became the first Korean author to win the Shirley Jackson Awards for mystery, thriller, and horror with the book, and her other works, including City of Ash and Red (Changbi), The Law of Lines (Munhakdongne), and The Owl Cries (Munji Publishing) have been widely read abroad. Kim Young-Ha’s novel Diary of a Murderer (Munhakdongne), which features a serial killer with Alzheimer’s disease, won the 2020 Deutscher Krimipreis for International Fiction. The award is the oldest German mystery award and is voted on by mystery critics, novelists, and officials from mystery bookstores for the best mystery novel of the year.


* K-Book Trends Vol. 55 – Go to the article about the book Diary of a Murderer


The Koreancovers of The Disaster Tourist

English covers of The Disaster Tourist

The Korean The Plotters

English covers of The Plotters

The Korean and English covers of The Disaster Tourist and The Plotters


The Korean covers of The Hole

English covers of The Hole

The Korean covers of Diary of a Murderer

English covers of Diary of a Murderer

The Korean and English covers of The Hole and the Korean and German covers of Diary of a Murderer



Works with stronger genre colors are also gaining international attention. For example, the book The Good Son (Eunhaeng Namu Publishing), written by Jeong You-Jeong, who is known as an influential thriller writer, has been published in more than 20 countries, including Germany, Finland, the US, the UK, and France. The English version of Seven Years of Darkness (Eunhaeng Namu Publishing), published in Germany, China, Vietnam, and France, was released in 2020 and received much attention from major media outlets such as CrimeReads and Bustle. The Los Angeles Times commented that Seven Years of Darkness is proof that Jeong You-Jeong is one of the best writers of psychological suspense novels. It was also nominated for the “December Krimi Zeit Bestenliste (Best Mystery Books to Read),” a joint announcement by Germany’s top daily newspaper Zeit and radio station Nordwestradio.
The book The Investigation (Eunhaeng Namu Publishing) by Lee Jung-Myeong, who is recognized as a master of Faction (a combination of Fact and Fiction), features poet Yoon Dong-Ju and was translated into Italian and won the Premio Selezione Bancarella Award, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Italy. The first winner of the award was Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and other notable winners include Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and John Grisham’s The Client. It is notable that not only is Lee the first Korean to win the prize, but also that all five competing works were by Italian authors. It was also shortlisted for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015 and has been recognized in over ten countries, including the UK, the US, France, and Spain. Also, Chung Bora’s Cursed Bunny (Arzaklivres), with its dark horror and science fiction elements, was shortlisted for The International Booker Prize in 2022. However, while people highly anticipated another winning of the award by a Korean writer after Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (Changbi), it eventually fell short.


* K-Book Trends Vol. 47 – Go to the interview of writer Chung Bora


The Korean covers of The Good Son

English covers of The Good Son

The Korean covers of Seven Years of Darkness

English covers of Seven Years of Darkness

The Korean and English covers of The Good Son and Seven Years of Darkness


『별을 스치는 바람』의 한국판 표지

『별을 스치는 바람』의 이탈리아어판 표지

『저주토끼』의 한국판 표지

『저주토끼』의 영문판 표지

The Korean and Italian covers of The Investigation and the Korean and English covers of Cursed Bunny



These all show that Korean genre fiction is highly recognized abroad, and that many foreign publishers are paying attention to Korean mystery literature. For example, French publishing house Matin Calme exclusively introduces Korean mystery novels, and its lineup includes works by Jeong Hae-Yeon, Kim Un-Su, Seo Mi-Ae, Do Jin-Ki, and Lee Jong-Kwan.
There has also been an increase in overseas exports and video adaptations of works known as traditional mystery novels. Song Si-Woo’s The House of Red Lilac (Sigongsa) was published in Thailand and received good reviews, while Here Comes the Black Dog (Sigongsa) was published in France. Running Investigators (Sigongsa) was made into an OCN drama starring Lee Yo-Won. The books The Red House Murder (Goldenbough), Le Portrait de La Traviata (Goldenbough), The Man Who Knows Me (Sigongsa), and The Order Issue (Sigongsa) by Do Jin-Ki, a former judge, were translated into Chinese. Le Portrait de La Traviata and Mental Suicide (Goldenbough) were published in France. Also, the book The Star of Judas (Goldenbough) is being made into a movie. Plus, Kyobo Story Contest Grand Prize winner Hwang Se-Yeon’s The Man I Killed Returned (Macaroon) has signed deals in China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and is in development as a movie. The short story Sophisticated Murder from The 2035 SF Mystery (Nabiclub) has also sold its rights for dramatization. In addition, Kim Jae-Hee’s Gyeongsung Women’s Counseling Center (Book Ocean), Yoon Ja-Young’s Detective Sambi, Specialist in Car Accidents (Book Ocean), Choi Hyuk-Gon’s The Suspicious Ace Does Not Have a Uniform (Goldenbough), and The Night of Two Non-Detectives (Sigongsa) are also being produced as dramas.
The rise of female writers such as Seo Mi-Ae and Jeong You-Jeong is also noticeable. Jeong Hae-Yeon, who released The Day of Kidnapping (Sigongsa), Package (Goldenbough), and The Flamingo’s Place (Elixir), has already gained a solid fan base. At the same time, Song Si-Woo, author of The House of Red Lilac and The Island of Crying Bamboo (Sigongsa), has recently completed a new full-length mystery novel and is preparing to publish it. In addition, Cho Young-Joo, author of Red Sofa (Hainaim) and Nothing Like a Twist (Yundam L), and Choi Jung-Won, writer of The Recipe (Aphros Media) and The Red Media (Aphros Media), are also actively writing. In a time when the boundaries between literary genres are blurring, the works of female writers showing delicate sensitivity are gaining strength in Korea, and their popularity is expected to continue for a while.


The House of Red Lilac

The Red House Murder

Le Portrait de La Traviata

The Man I Killed Returned

The House of Red Lilac, The Red House Murder, Le Portrait de La Traviata, and The Man I Killed Returned


The Day of Kidnapping

The Island of Crying Bamboo

Red Sofa

The Recipe

The Day of Kidnapping, The Island of Crying Bamboo, Red Sofa, and The Recipe



While there is still a tendency in Korea to belittle mystery literature and, more broadly, genre literature itself, compared to so-called pure literature, this divide has long since disappeared overseas. “Thrillers are still treated like second-class citizens in Korea,” said Barbara J. Zitwer, American literary agent. She added, “The international publishing world has finally embraced Korean writers. Korean writers are revitalizing the thriller genre. Readers who are tired of Scandinavian thrillers are craving something new,” highly appreciating the growing prominence of Korean mystery literature.


* K-Book Trends Vol. 39 – Go to the article by Barbara J. Zitwer


Writers whose works were previously categorized as pure literature, as in the cases of Kim Un-Su, Kim Young-Ha, Yoon Ko-Eun, and Pyun Hye-Young, are borrowing the techniques of mystery literature to create works that appeal to the tastes of international readers. Writers who love mystery literature and write works that stay close to the genre’s techniques are also receiving high recognition at home and abroad, and are preparing to transform their works into various media, including movies and dramas. At last, Korean mystery literature is moving away from the periphery and toward the center, spreading its wings toward its true heyday.



Written by Han Lee (Chief editor of the magazine Mystery)



Han Lee (Chief editor of the magazine Mystery)

#Mystery Literature#Thriller#Genre Fiction#The International Booker Prize
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