June Hur’s 2020 The Silence of Bones is a stand-alone historical murder mystery.
King Chŏngjo of Joseon has died. Natural causes? Assassination? The ominous natural phenomena said to have accompanied his death are suggestive of something askew. Nevertheless, in the well-ordered state that is Joseon, to speculate risks execution for treason.
Every politically aware person knows that when in five months the official mourning period ends, Catholics, deemed enemies of the state, will again be tracked down and punished, as will those whose diligence in exposing Catholics is insufficient. As will others whose crime is to have inconvenienced the currently well-connected. Rivers of blood will flow, followed, no doubt, by a golden age of stability.
Damo (indentured police servant) Seol has a more immediate problem: a woman’s corpse found in an alley.
The police are men. However, it is forbidden for men to touch women to whom they are not related. Therefore, the police have damos, female indentured servants like Seol, to deal with women, living or otherwise. The woman in the alley falls under the category of otherwise.
Every subject is supposed to carry a wooden identification tag at all times: it gives the bearer’s name, place of birth, status, and residence. It’s easy to determine that the dead woman is Lady O, daughter of the Cabinet Minister O. The cause of death is likewise easy to determine: her throat was slashed and her nose cut off, likely with Lady O’s own dagger.
Less clear: motive. Utterly unknown: the identity of the killer.
Inspector Han takes command of the case. Han is one of the few members of the force for whom Seol has unquestioning respect. Han has all the virtues one might want in an inspector. Indeed, he has more. Seemingly alone of the all the men in the force, Han is able to see that a bright, curious woman could be an asset to his investigation (as opposed to being an annoying affront to the patriarchal order, as Seol appears to most other men on the force).
Seol’s life is a miserable one. She is indentured for a generation, the capital is far from her Inchon home, and her quest to discover the fate of her long-vanished brother appears to be an utter failure. Han’s eagerness to make use of her is a welcome distraction from the dreary prospect of her present and future.
Alas! It quickly becomes clear that Lady O was Catholic and that there may be a political aspect to the case. If Han makes any mistake handling it, Han’s rivals will leap on the chance to discredit him. And his assistant. Which could be deadly for both. What is worse for Seol is that while Han is broadminded enough to use Seol, he doesn’t feel any loyalty to her. If things go wrong, he may accuse her to save himself.
Curious Seol uncovers evidence pointing at Inspector Han. By allying with Han, has Seol doomed herself?
Torture is a key police tool and makes an on-stage appearance.
This may astonish modern readers but “catching the guilty party” is only one goal of the Joseon legal system and not always the most important one. Many victims are deemed beneath contempt and their deaths very nearly a public service. Their killers will not be punished. Also, the system takes a very broad definition of “guilty”: a person inconvenient to powerful people is guilty, even if technically they didn’t commit the actions for which they will be blamed and executed.
The narrative is told in the first person, from Seol’s point of view. First person always makes me wonder who the character thinks is going to read the work. In this case, Seol’s occasional habit of defining commonplace details was a particular puzzler: what possible reader of her writing would need such things defined1? It’s not as if Seol knows she is a character in a 21st century historical murder mystery. There is an answer of sorts towards the end, foreshadowed by the fact that early in the novel, Seol is utterly illiterate.
There can be a tendency for Westerners to believe that Asian nations were locked in Oriental stasis until Westerners helpfully upended the status quo. To quote an SF luminary on India and China (to whom Joseon was a vassal state at this time):
In fact, history did occur in Asia (if I have the dates right, women’s rights were rolled back shortly before the period in which the novel is set2). The treatment of Catholics is simply one part of the power politics of the day3.
Curiously, the custom of doing ones best to utterly obliterate political enemies doesn’t seem to have been particular effective at providing long term stability and security. It did manage to produce a no-holds-barred school of politics that is very entertaining for modern readers. The novel makes it clear that life in this period was often less than fun4.
This is a perfectly functional historical mystery, one notable because it’s not a historical mystery in which it turns out the detective (and possibly his wife as well) rather conveniently espouse the values of 21st century Westerners5. Han is able to see Seol’s utility, but that doesn’t make him woke; it’s just that he knows how to use her (as he would a domestic animal). As the story is related by someone at the bottom of the pecking order, the prevailing hierarchy isn’t depicted sympathetically. However, Seol is not a modern Western woman and she is not going to single-handedly reform Joseon. She can only hope to survive and rejoin her family.
1: There is this fascinating passage:
I have read many detective tales in my lifetime, and often ‘motive’ paves the path to the ‘who.’”
I was very, very curious as to whether any Korean detective tales of this period have been translated. Unfortunately, search engine results for Joseon-era detective stories turn up only modern historical dramas.
2: The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong is on my to-get list.
3: One Catholic whose activities inspire a good chunk of the plot is Priest Zhou Wenmo, who was Chinese. This poses something of a problem for the state, since as a vassal of China, Joseon is not permitted to execute Chinese subjects, not even extremely annoying ones like Priest Zhou Wenmo. This seems like a good point to warn readers not to get too attached to any Catholics in this novel, as they are terribly accident prone, forever breaking bones before stumbling under executioner’s swords.
4: For example, to better facilitate diligence in exposing Catholics, households were sorted into groups of five. If one household was discovered to have been enemies of the state, all five households were punished. People were highly motivated to assist non-conformists to have tragic shaving accidents before the state got involved.
5: I will not mention a certain Tokugawa shogunate-era detective series, but I am thinking of it.