A GESTURE LIFE, by Chang-rae Lee. Hew York: Riverhead Books, 2000, 356 pp., $14 (paper).
UNDERKILL, by Leonard Chang. Hew York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2003, 356 pp., $24.95 (cloth).
THE INTERPRETER, by Suki Kim. Hew York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2003, 294 pp., $24 (cloth).

For most Americans, until fairly recently, Korea’s literary and intellectual traditions were as unfamiliar as the duty free counter at Pyongyang International Airport. But that has been changing rapidly as Korean American writers enter the U.S. literary mainstream.

Of the three titles reviewed here, only Leonard Chang’s work can be categorized as a true mystery novel. But all involve crimes and efforts to conceal past secrets, and all share several characteristics: The protagonists all suffer from dysfunctional family relationships and, perhaps for this reason, their own personal relationships aren’t doing much better. All three titles also feature rebellious (read promiscuous) ethnic Korean females, who engage in casual sex with members of other racial groups.

Do Korean Americans entertain greater anxieties on such matters than other immigrant groups in the U.S.? Perhaps if this question were conveyed to the authors, it might be interesting to see how they reply.

In “A Gesture Life,” Franklin Hata, an elderly Japanese-Korean in a rural New York community, doesn’t seem especially unhappy. He has insulated his wounds and tried to put his wartime experiences behind him.

Despite his efforts to act as a model parent, his adopted daughter (a Korean orphan) is sullen and rebellious for reasons never explained. Hata obviously wants to love someone, and surely the outcome of his hopelessly tragic love for a Korean “comfort woman,” who he met when serving as a medical officer in a Japanese unit in Southeast Asia during the war, was not his fault. In the end we have a Korean writer portraying a Korean character who is able to pass as a Japanese. Of the three novels, this story has the distinction of being the best written, yet the least convincing.

“Underkill” is Leonard Chang’s second novel featuring Allan Choice, whose name is “Americanized” from Choi. Choice isn’t a detective yet — he’s busy preparing to take the state test for a private investigator’s license — but he travels south from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles at the behest of his Hispanic girlfriend Linda to look into the inexplicable death of her younger brother. The investigation, however, takes a back seat to the main story, which is about how Choice and Linda can’t get along. In typically Californian boy-loses-girl fashion, before the two have even broken up, Choice finds himself attracted to a new flame, a Korean American woman who he meets in the course of his investigation.

It has become a standard formula for mystery writers to treat their detectives — who must deal with devious and twisted suspects — as flawed figures driven to seek justice as a salve for the tragedies that haunt their own personal experience. Chang’s character is still new and unfamiliar; so before we are given a couple of books to develop any affinity for Choice’s detective skills, we’re forced to overdose on his personal quirks.

It is a case of too much, too soon, and it distracts terribly. Too bad, as Choice is one of precious few Asian detective series created by Asian-American authors (Lisa See, Dale Furutani and Laura Joh Rowland being three others who come to mind). In his next book Chang should get his priorities back on track and let his sleuth stick to the business of detecting.

In “The Interpreter,” Suki Kim provides a warts-and-all peep at the Korean immigrant community in New York City. Suzy Park, who lost both her parents to a murder five years earlier, is at work at her court interpreting job when she encounters a man who knew, and hated, her parents. This leads her to probe further into their still-unsolved murder.

Almost everywhere Park goes in the course of her investigation, she discovers that her look-alike sister, one year older, had been there already. And now the sister has gone missing. By searching for answers, Park eventually finds herself tumbling down a slippery slope.

After detailing Suzy Park’s regrets over her promiscuous relationship with a married college professor and her unfocused transition from adolescence to adulthood, Kim produces a sort of deus ex machina to solve the mystery and bring the story to a conclusion. Somehow it manages to work, mainly because the situation is plausible, and the agonies suffered by the protagonist during her process of discovery are almost palpable.

The book’s somewhat disjointed narrative (told in the first person) makes it the most difficult of the three novels to enjoy, and as a mystery, “The Interpreter” earns a barely passing grade; its true appeal lies in its ability to heap each new horrible revelation upon the next. Reworked into a Hollywood screenplay, this book could make a powerful film.

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