Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Los Angeles isn’t just one community. Like many large cities, it’s comprised of many different and diverse communities. Hollywood, for instance, is vastly different to Compton, which is very different to East LA, and so on. Let’s take a look at one Los Angeles’ communities today and turn the spotlight on Mark Rogers’ Koreatown Blues. Incidentally, thanks to Col at Col’s Criminal Library for introducing me to this book. You’ll want to check his fine blog out. Lots of fine reviews await you.
Wes Norgaard is the manager of Warsaw Wash, a car wash company in Los Angeles’ Koreatown district. He’s been saving up his money in the hopes that when the owner is ready to retire and sell, he can buy the business. His life may not be exciting, but he’s content enough. Everything changes one night while he’s at one of his haunts, a bar called Saja.
As some of the patrons are taking turns with karaoke, a man named Dae-Hyun enters the bar. He barely gets through the door when he is shot from outside and killed. At first, other than answering a few police questions, Norgaard doesn’t think he’s going to be deeply involved in the case. He’s wrong. The bar’s owner, Mrs. Tam, invites him to her home, where she offers him a very unusual deal. He will be paid fifteen thousand dollars if he agrees to marry a young woman named Soo Jin. Then, she tells him the story behind this offer.
Soo Jin is a member of the Nang family. That clan has been in a blood feud with another clan, the Doko family, for hundreds of years. The Dokos have just about won the war by killing every Korean male who marries any woman in the Nang family. Now, there are only a few Nangs left, and Soo Jin is the only woman of childbearing age. It’s believed that the Dokos won’t kill a white man; so, if Norgaard marries Soo Jin, she can have children and keep the Nang family alive.
Mrs. Tam has some leverage, too. Word has gotten around in Koreatown that Norgaard wants to buy Warsaw Wash, and that his boss is ready to retire and sell, for the right price. Norgaard doesn’t have enough money saved up, but with what he’ll be paid to marry Soo Jin, he can make the purchase. Norgaard wants the car wash. And, he wants to help Soo Jin and the Nangs, too. So, he agrees to a deal.
But everyone soon learns that the Dokos have no intention of sparing Norgaard, especially once they find out that he’s not wealthy. Before long, things get so dangerous that he and Soo Jin can no longer stay in his home. They go into hiding at the home of Norgaard’s friend-with-benefits, Yun, and her children. That doesn’t mean anyone’s safe, though. In fact, Norgaard is attacked and threatened more than once.
As the stakes get higher, Norgaard is going to have to find a way to outwit the Dokos, and hopefully stop the blood feud before anyone else gets killed. If he can’t he will most definitely be killed. But he’s not the sort of person to run away from a problem, so he determines not to flee from this one.
One of the most important elements in this novel is the look readers get at life in modern Los Angeles. Most of the action takes place in Koreatown, an area with its own unique lifestyle, and Rogers places the reader there. Norgaard may not be Korean, but he’s quite comfortable in the area, and enjoys the food, the beer, and the culture. And he’s accepted in the community.
Koreatown is, of course, part of Los Angeles, and several scenes in the novel take place in other sections of the city, from West Hollywood to Redondo Beach to downtown. So, readers get a look at the city from more than one angle, so to speak.
Another element in the novel is Norgaard himself. The story is told from his perspective (first person, past tense), so we get to know him. He’s far from perfect, but he’s a fundamentally decent person who hasn’t got much taste for violence, and who simply wants an uncomplicated life. He’s dependable and tries to act with integrity, and that includes the way he tries to settle the whole matter of the feud and Soo Jin.
Norgaard has several friends, and their loyalty to him gives the reader a perspective on his character. There’s Manuel, who manages the car wash now that Norgaard is in charge. There’s Royal Jones, a nurse at the local clinic where Norgaard goes for treatment of hemochromatosis. And there’s Jules Weinberg, Warsaw Wash’s former owner and Norgaard’s mentor. Norgaard has his faults, as we all do. But he knows the worth of his friends and doesn’t take them for granted. As a side note, the diversity among Norgaard’s friends also gives the reader a look at Los Angeles’ diversity.
And that’s another element in the novel. Norgaard doesn’t have a particular political agenda, although he has no patience at all with bigotry. But there is a subtext of some of the different racial, ethnic, and other kinds of diversity in the city. Norgaard has friends across the proverbial spectrum, but not everyone feels the way he does.
There is wit in the story. But it’s not a light, comic novel (although there are some funny scenes). The Dokos are ruthless, and there are scenes of violence, not all of them ‘off stage.’ It’s not gruesome, ‘torture violence,’ but it’s there. The language, too, is explicit, and there is explicit sex. Each reader has a different answer to the question of how much is ‘too much’ when it comes to such things.
Koreatown Blues is the story of a decent ‘everyman’ sort of character who gets caught up in a blood feud. It takes place in one of Los Angeles’ unique and distinctive areas and features a variety of characters who are part of the life there. But what’s your view? Have you read Koreatown Blues? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 2 April/Tuesday, 3 April – The Salaryman’s Wife – Sujata Massey
Monday, 9 April/Tuesday, 10 April – The Ghosts of Belfast – Stuart Neville
Monday, 16 April/Tuesday, 17 April – The Face of a Stranger – Anne Perry