Kim Young-ha’s dementia-themed thriller Diary of a Murderer is sort of unusual in several ways: the way it’s written, the point of view it dares to take, the plot twist it presents at the end―they all, though do not give the reader a thrill this genre should, scream uniqueness and a certain level of darkness accompanying them through its pretty difficult labyrinth. A story of a serial killer is already everywhere in the crime/thriller area, but wait until you have to encounter what’s inside their mind.
Kim Byeong-su started killing at the age of 16 when he decided to end his own father’s life. Since then, he had been going on a killing spree until he was 45, and eventually stopped when he didn’t feel any excitement from it anymore. Now he is merely a 70-year-old retired veterinarian suffering from dementia and unable to remember the most recent things in his life. He only has his daughter Eun-hee at his side, and has to keep her picture in a locket so as to not forget her face. He even writes things down in a diary, especially what he had done in the past.
As the narrative reveals more and more, however, the most interesting thing about Kim Byeong-su’s past murderous activities is that he never got caught, not even once. This was simply because he did that right in the era when South and North Koreas were in an intense war, where the northern parts of the democratic one filled with the Communist spies lurking in forests. There were not enough evidences, there weren’t any eyewitnesses, and so every murder he committed would be right away blamed on the enemy’s people. But it is exactly what makes him regret his peaceful life for the last twenty five years. He finds it so boring and thinks that he should have been arrested. Unfortunately, that never happened.
And now that he is “enjoying” his retirement he becomes unexpectedly restless, not only for the dementia he has but also because of a seeming killer who appears to be targeting his daughter Eun-hee. As an ex-murderer himself, he knows his kind when he sees one, and there is no way he will let that suspicious man get any near Eun-hee. So he makes up his mind and starts tracking Park Ju-tae, the suspicious man he thinks is trying to murder Eun-hee yet in fact, much to his surprise, claiming to be her boyfriend. Things get confusing and unsettling between the three, and Kim Byeong-su, of course, warns his daughter against seeing her boyfriend again. But Eun-hee won’t take it, saying instead that he is being unreasonable and confused. He is sure he is not confused, though his dementia has been damaging his brain more and more. Now, with this state of mind, it becomes all the more unclear what’s real and what’s not, what’s merely his imagination and what’s not. So, how then will he save his daughter?
It doesn’t feel right to say Diary of a Murderer is an intense thriller novel. It doesn’t grip you, it doesn’t haunt you that you want to finish it in one sit. It does, though, make you wonder non-stop how it will turn out and if Kim Byeong-su will be able to save his daughter at the end. But the entire narrative is clearly about what happens inside his mind, not outside it in reality. The writer, Kim Young-ha, invites us to come and play with the protagonist’s suffering mind and memory, to see and guess if what he tells the reader is reliable or the otherwise, and to pity him sometimes. It’s tricky and yet laid-back at the same time. It doesn’t want you to restlessly ask questions and demand answers, it wants you to lazily play the game like an old person that he is.
Kim Young-ha’s Diary of a Murderer is a puzzle-heavy read with an unusual narrative about a serial killer. It’s neither a whodunit nor a whydunit, it’s more like a mind trap for the reader. That’s said, the writer is not so merciless that he doesn’t give any hints of where the story is going. He does, in a very subtle way, and that’s the strength of this so-called crime novel (if we cannot call it a “mind labyrinth” one). Readers who do not get the hints will probably be angry once they reach the end of the game, but those who are aware from the beginning of what the writer intends to reveal will almost definitely say, “Ah, that makes sense.”
In conclusion, Diary of a Murderer can be or cannot be called a crime/thriller story, but it is undoubtedly enganging and convincingly deceiving. It is highly recommended to anyone who is already bored with the conventional type in this entire serial killer universe.