cover image The Investigation

The Investigation

J.M. Lee, trans. from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim. Pegasus (Norton, dist.), $24.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-60598-846-7

This effective, elaborate historical novel is from Lee, a bestseller in his native South Korea. The tale opens with the introduction of the young narrator, Watanbe Yuichi, who is conscripted to be a camp guard at the Japanese Fukuoka Prison during World War II. Yuichi is tasked with investigating the hanging murder of a fellow guard, Sugiyama Dozan, a decorated war veteran. The first clue Yuichi uncovers is a handwritten poem tucked inside Sugiyama's uniform, all the more baffling given the thuggish and cruel reputation of the Butcher (as Dozan is nicknamed). The dogged Yuichi discovers that Sugiyama was a bookworm, wrote poetry, and befriended the young poet Yun Dong-ju, who is serving a two-year sentence for writing subversive literature against Imperial Japan. The author deftly handles Yun Dong-ju, a character based on the celebrated Korean poet of the same name, but includes too many of his poems, almost to the point of distraction from the otherwise smooth storytelling. To counterbalance the grim penal setting, the infirmary nurse Iwanami Midori is introduced as Yuichi's love interest. The horrors of camp survival, such as the prisoners' escape attempts and the repulsive Nazi-like medical experiments, are presented convincingly. Readers will find Lee's novel to be a satisfying mystery supplemented by rich historical detail. (Aug.)