Inside the Head of an Aging Serial Killer

A new story collection from Kim Young-ha complicates the trope of the relatable murderer and, in the process, puts the reader in a quandary.

Mariner Books

When Jeff Lindsay first wrote his Dexter novels, about a blood-spatter analyst who kills bad people in his spare time, he unintentionally kicked off a modern love affair with the fictionalized serial killer. In the years following Dexter Morgan’s televised debut on Showtime, humanizing portrayals of murderous antiheroes have increased. There’s the protagonist of Hannibal, whose artistic refinement drew an FBI agent to him. In a slightly different mold, there’s John Tavner of Amazon’s Patriot, a traumatized hitman who bungles jobs and would rather play music, and the titular character of HBO’s Barry, a reluctant gun for hire who just wants to act; these killers take lives grudgingly, as if murder were a monotonous day job. Viewers, in turn, get a relatable, largely genial protagonist to root for.

The writer Kim Young-ha recognizes, and challenges, this cultural sympathy for the serial killer with his recent collection of short stories, Diary of a Murderer. The four-parter, translated from Korean by Krys Lee, opens with a novella of the same name that follows an aging former serial killer, Kim Byeongsu, as he battles Alzheimer’s. Though Byeongsu murdered prodigiously in his prime, his weakened state now leaves him reliant on his adopted daughter, Eunhui. When a spate of murders hits their town, he becomes convinced that her boyfriend, Pak Jutae, is behind them and decides to kill him before any harm comes to Eunhui. The premise of a skilled, aging murderer unable to trust his own memories is a quirky spin on the moral quagmires that criminal antiheroes usually face.

Byeongsu is less apologetic about his crimes than his TV counterparts. While Dexter refers to his murderous side as his “dark passenger” and Barry would call himself an actor foremost, Byeongsu continually and proudly refers to himself as a serial killer. This pride, combined with his newfound vulnerability, makes him strangely magnetic; his attempts to sort through his memory in the midst of immediate danger are fascinating, much like watching a car accident unfold in real time. His desperate attempts to document his days elucidate the anger, fear, and frustration of dementia, often creating asides between the reader and author that the protagonist isn’t privy to. These moments can, at times, read humorously, undercutting the tenuous control he prides himself on exercising over his life.

Still, Byeongsu maintains a chilling detachment that’s often played for irony. His mission to protect his daughter, though a classic hero’s tale, is written off as mere obligation. Having made a promise not to harm Eunhui (moments before he murders her mother), he sticks to it: “I hated people who made empty promises, so I tried hard not to become that kind of person.” He’s dispassionate even when discussing his compassion toward animals. “Over the years, I’ve saved many lives,” he argues, “even if those lives belong to animals that don’t speak.” Kim complicates the reader’s understanding of what makes this killer “good”: Though largely harmless in his post-serial-killing days, he remains unapologetic about his psychopathy. His onscreen counterpart in the film adaptation of this story, Memoir of a Murderer, trades in this complexity for more standard antihero pabulum (his only desire is to keep Eunhui safe). Kim’s original, though, makes it harder to empathize with him.

Unlike Dexter, who is disturbed by his urge to kill, or Barry, who is uncomfortable with his talent for killing, Byeongsu’s frustration has more to do with the mental and physical limitations that keep him from being the effective murderer he knows he can be. His attitude toward killing is closer to Hannibal’s celebratory approach (though when we meet Byeongsu, he has few Hannibal-esque faculties remaining). A killer since age 16, he continued to murder out of the “hope for a more perfect pleasure.” He explains, “Each time I buried a victim, I repeated to myself: I can do better next time.”

This fixation isn’t limited to serial killers, and is most explicitly explored in the collection’s fourth and final story, “The Writer.” In it, the wealthy owner of a publishing house considers killing his ex-wife. He echoes Byeongsu when he says, “Planning a murder is a little like contemplating immigration. Once you start thinking about it, you can’t stop.” Obsession—that relatable character flaw—rather than a twisted morality, becomes the reader’s uneasy point of identification with Kim’s protagonists. A similarly myopic self-interest surfaces even within Kim’s most altruistic-seeming characters. In “Missing Child,” a father stubbornly searches for years for his missing son and is disappointed to realize that bringing him home is not enough to restore the happy family he imagined they were in the past.

What makes Byeongsu stand out from Kim’s other characters, however, is the charming curiosity with which he approaches life and his crippling condition. He reads poetry and cites philosophy texts, constantly challenging himself. After meeting Pak for the first time and being overcome with the recognition of a fellow serial killer, he references Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Other.” Later, in the middle of his murderous plotting, he muses, “It suddenly occurred to me: I might be jealous of Pak.” Killing is to Byeongsu a way to discover an authentic self. His fixation on the suspected younger killer doubles, per his Borges reference, as a fixation on a past version of himself.

Kim’s use of pastiche—diary entries, jotted-down notes, snippets from a recorder Byeongsu wears around his neck—to re-create Byeongsu’s interactions with his dementia draws readers deeply into the protagonist’s voice. This peripatetic self-awareness, patchworked together through his disease, makes him a compelling narrator. Hints of megalomania, such as his penchant for likening himself to tragic Greek heroes (“If Oedipus looks into the mirror, he’ll see me standing there”), allow for some paradox in this reading. But Kim manages to blindside even wary readers with a twist that recognizes the worst of Byeongsu’s fears about losing control.

“To an elderly serial killer, Alzheimer’s is life’s practical joke. No, it a hidden-camera prank show. Surprised you, right? Sorry. It’s only a joke,” Byeongsu notes bitterly, though not without wit. As he drifts in and out of his memories, readers’ various interpretations of the truth will act as a Rorschach test—assessing the limits of their faith in him. But Kim asks, compellingly, why readers might be so eager to believe him in the first place.