Probably because Thailand is such a draw for literary expats, there’s a dearth of well-written hard-boiled fiction situated in other Asian countries, Korea being no exception. For that reason, we here at WoWasis were particularly interested in Ron McMillan’s Yin Yang Tattoo (2010, ISBN 978-1-905207-31-2). McMillan’s not a veteran writer. It’s his second book, and his first based in Asia. And it’s a good one, written as though he’d been in the writing game for a while.
In addition to a number of compelling characters, McMillan paints Korea well, having worked there as a photographer and English teacher. Alec Brodie, his protagonist, is a boozy, out-of-work photographer that gets involved in an international scam that’s way above his head, ultimately involving an ex-girlfriend of his. We like the fact that he’s not perfect and not all that extraordinarily bright, either. But somehow he stumbles along through 310 pages, slogging it out with friend and foe. The plot’s brilliantly written and moves nicely through some crazy twists. McMillan knows his Korea, and utilizing geographical areas to bring an element of verisimilitude to the meanderings of Brodie, who’s always in more danger than he realizes. The author understands Korean politics and culture, educating the reader along the way on elements as diverse as the Korean CIA and the proper way to make raw fish really tasty. One of our favorite descriptive passages involves Seoul’s Dongdaemun market, revealing McMillan’s chops as a master of description. Throughout the entire book, the reader is well aware of being in Korea, rather than in some nameless pan-Asian locale.
There were too many references to blues and R&B music for our liking, a minor fault that seems to be common among fiction writers that are also musicians, particular to the musical passion of a given author. McMillan’s good enough at establishing mood that he really doesn’t need to school the reader on musicology while Brodie drinks in a bar. On the other hand, the author’s background as a photographer is essential to the story, and his takes on the tricks of the craft (and its pitfalls — after all, that’s a lot of stuff to carry) are wonderful educative elements.
Overall, this book is so good that we recommend you take it with you on the plane when you first go to Korea. It’s fast-paced, so you can finish it on the ride, and full of so much cultural data that you’ll be ahead of the game when you land. This is a damn fine book by an emerging writer that writes like a vet, and there’s not a wasted page in it. Highly recommended. Buy it now at the WoWasis eStore.
Read a review of Ron McMillan’s latest book, Bangkok Cowboy