Elly McDonald


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The Old Woman With The Knife by Gu Byeong-mo; and The Plotters by Kim Un-su (Un-su Kim)

She was a founding member of the company and a mainstay employee for decades. Now she’s in her 60s, and she faces being pushed out – rudely, by a jeering male junior. Termination is painful for professional assassins.

The female lead character of The Old Woman With The Knife could be any older woman in the workforce, or any Second Wave feminist.

It’s a cracking crime thriller. It’s also a social allegory asking us to consider the value of a life: why some lives are devalued, how value is contingent. How people are used. How people are thrown away.

This old woman wants to go out on her own terms. She might also want the experience of love, a sense that she has in some small way experienced tenderness, compassion, gratitude, and protected goodness. These are experiences never permitted her.

Reseng, the male lead character in The Plotters, is similarly caged in a dog eat dog reality. He exists only to carry out, to the letter, directions from mysterious Higher Ups. He’s a male assassin. He does have, or has had, people he’s cared for, but they get killed. That’s business.

A target tells Reseng, “A man ought to be able to choose a death that gives his life a dignified ending. Only those who truly walk their own path can choose their own death. But not me. I’ve been a slug my whole life, so I don’t deserve a dignified death.”

The Plotters is a tale of the worm turning. Reseng has never been permitted to write his own script. He believes – and he has evidence – that given the chance to turn his life around, a person will voluntarily return to the cage they were in. Reseng is a fatalist. He knows – he has evidence – death comes to everyone; he believes it doesn’t matter who kills us. But is it possible that the circumstances of our death can make our life meaningful?

The Plotters is set around a library filled with unread books. Every book is a script, and every script is a life. Who gets written, and who gets to write?

The Washington Post chose The Plotters as Best Thriller of the Year, presumably for 2018, the year the English translation by Sora Kim-Russell was published (in Korea, the novel was published in 2010). I love this book. I love both these books. The Old Woman With The Knife first appeared in 2013, English translation by Chi-young Kim in 2022.