Koreatown Blues by Mark Rogers

published 2017

Koreatown Blues 1

As usual, I was the only white guy in the place. I watched as the cordless microphone was passed down along the bar to Ban Gu, a pale-faced Korean with huge bags under his eyes. I looked up at the wall-mounted TV behind the bar. A Korean ballad began to play—words I couldn’t understand. Ban Gu got deep into the tune—he was a good singer. Once or twice, when I got really drunk, I’d try to sing in Korean. No one ever told me to shut up. No one ever grabbed the mic out of my hand. Instead they’d smile and slap me on the back as I gutted their language. I looked over at the front door where a tall floor fan whirred and buzzed, doing its best to cool off the bar...

Koreatown Blues 2

I glanced over at Ms. Tam, the owner of the bar. She was smiling. She liked it when I sang. The Koreans were middle class and were pleased when a white guy showed them respect—even a white guy like me, in jeans and a black T-shirt. Ms. Tam looked to be in her fifties, still put together well, always wearing a sheath-like dress. I think her black hair was a wig, since it never changed shape. She always had a Marlboro pasted to her lower lip. The rest of LA had won the war against smokers, but you’d never know it in Koreatown.

commentary: I discovered this book via my friend Col at his Criminal Library blog. I loved the cover, and the idea of a book set in the LA Koreatown – a place I knew little about. And the setup is great – this is from the publisher’s blurb:
Wes buys a carwash in LA’s Koreatown and gets a young Korean wife he’s never met as part of the bargain. The catch? Her five previous husbands were murdered before the honeymoon. Now Wes has a ring on his finger and a target on his back…and is caught in the middle of a centuries-old blood feud that won’t end until he’s either dead or the last husband standing.
Intriguing… and it was indeed a highly enjoyable book. As expected, I loved the details and descriptions of Koreatown and the life lived there. The weird blood feud aspect of the plot was great – like a supercharged Godfather.

There was this after someone is killed:
I hadn’t been that surprised to find the Saja Room open after last night’s bloody shooting. If it’s one thing Koreatown understands, it’s business. The flow of dollars must be kept open and constant. There was no time to mourn. Cart off the body, bag the evidence, and scrub away the blood. Do it fast—overnight if possible—so you can open the next day, pouring beer and soju and cranking out the karaoke. And anyway, the guy who got his head blown off wasn’t a regular.
The plot varied between routine violence, beatings, alpha male parading, and some more interesting aspects. The feud that our hero Wes gets caught up in is 300 years old, so he asks what caused it:
“Bon-Hwa, a Nang merchant, gave Hyo Doko a short measure of rice—five hundred grams.”  
“Is that a lot?”  
Soo Jin did the metric conversion in her head. “A little more than a pound." 

“The Dokos and the Nangs are fighting over a pound of rice?”

The answer is: Yes.

Wes is living on the edge, in constant danger – so he asks his crew at the carwash to keep an eye out for him:
“Anybody hanging around?” 

“Just the crew, man.” 

“Look around. You see a Korean guy watching you?” 

“We’re in Koreatown,” said Manuel. “There’s a bunch of Korean dudes.”

The book is well-plotted: and it made me realize something. Usually in a thriller – no matter how thrilling and twisty – you have a pretty good idea of how it is going to end, how good will prevail, who needs to die, and how the hero will end up, and who with. In this case I was kept guessing as to how Wes was going to get out of the feud, the threat and certainty of death. And also how he was going to resolve a strange and difficult situation that had arisen in his lovelife. 

Well, the author certainly achieved this, in surprising and entertaining ways. In an interview with Col, he said:
I’m also proud of the ending, which has been singled out by reviewers as being unexpected and contemporary.
Fair comment indeed. I could be snarky and say I wasn’t sure about some of the sex scenes, but that would be my only complaint – this was a really good thriller, short sharp and to the point, with some surprising and charming scenes in it, and a look at another way of life.

Top pictures is, obviously, the book cover.

A picture of karaoke actually in Korea, with this attribution ‘by Uri Tours (uritours.com), CC BY-SA 2.0.’


  1. You know, Moira, I remember reading about this one on Col's blog, and thinking that it sounded really interesting. It sounds as though there's a real sense of the local culture, which always appeals to me. And it's good to know it's well-plotted, too. Hmm....now there's two of you recommending it. I may have to actually put this on the radar...

    1. I decided to take a chance on it - sometimes Col's recommendations are too nourish for me (and for you too I think) but in this case it was just on the right side of the line. The intrinsic interest and thought that went into it made it a good read.

  2. Moira, I saw the cover and for a moment I thought I'd come to the wrong blog! This sounds like a robust thriller, though I've read my share of Koreatown, Chinatown etc. novels, so to speak. Then again, I might read it because Col has it.

    1. I know, Prashant - so much more what you would expect to see over at Col's. I haven't read so many books with those settings, but I do like the idea of the closed, different community: and this one really reflects that.

  3. Moira, that one went well then! Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the mention. I ought to read the thing myself now!

    1. Yes, I suspected you might not actually have read it! But still grateful for the tipoff. I think you'll like it too.

  4. May be a sign of grumpiness or just general impatience with elements that re deemed necessary to sell certain kinds of books but in fiction I find sex scenes usually very unappealing (in real life, quite the opposite :) ) This sounds great though, thanks Moira.

    1. SO agree with you Sergio. These days I tend to think 'why do they bother?' - I can see people were pushing the boundaries in the past, trying to fight censorship, and I'm all in favour of that. But most descriptions are poor, and I feel they could go back to ending a chapter 'they disappeared into the bedroom', followed by a new chapter beginning the next morning. A sex scene doesn't often add anything.

  5. I haven't been down to Koreatown for ages. Used to be the only place you could get really authentic Korean BBQ. But now there are great places everywhere. Parenthetically, it was a Korean family who owned the Kosher Burrito, and, man, I miss that place. I'd go there every time I was on jury duty downtown. I was hoping they'd re-open in Koreatown...or, even J-town, since it's so close to the civic center. Sigh. Sometimes revitalization takes all the fun out of a place....

    1. So glad to hear you were a regular! I love Korean food, in fact, I will go out of my way to find it - not difficult in London, more so in the small town where I live.

  6. I will probably try this book someday, since I like books set in Chinatown in various cities, and this would be a bit different.

    1. I think you would like it Tracy, and like you I always like a Chinatown book. I think this one is the point where yours mine and Col's tastes collide.


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