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.