The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee

This book grabbed me with its cover. It grabs your attention and makes you wonder what’s inside. There are some (lots of) covers out there that spell out what the book is (hello chick lit!), and I find this quite uninspiring. You want the cover to set the tone and mood, but not give too much away. So, with this cover, I will say that I instantly thought it beautiful, and also wondered why there was a kite, what the ‘investigation’ was of, and why it managed to look so sad despite being so beautiful.

2014 Mantle hardback edition (image:
2014 Mantle hardback edition (image:

Jung-Myung Lee is one of the bestselling authors in Korea, and his inspiration for The Investigation is one of the bestselling poets in Korea, Yun Dong-ju. Born in 1917 but not published until 1948, Yun Dong-ju was arrested in Japan in 1943 for his supposed involvement in the Korean resistance. He was sentenced to two years in Fukuoka Prison, and this is where and when Jung-Myung Lee sets his story.

Our narrator is Watanabe Yuichi, a twenty year old Japanese guard. As the book goes on we learn that until he was drafted he lived with his mother, helping to run their second hand bookshop. His love of books is deep, and he reminisces about sitting amongst the shelves at the back of the shop reading the classics, and letting himself be taken away by the stories he is reading. Fukuoka Prison is, crucially, a place where no unauthorised literature is allowed. ‘Unauthorised’ means anything that could incite the Korean prisoners to stand up for themselves or protest against Japan, and covers everything from the Ancient Greeks to Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. Poetry is also forbidden.

The Investigation opens with the murder of a guard, Sugiyama. He was the censor, the one who confiscated and burned the books and letters. He was also known as the most violent and cruel of the guards, and Watanabe knows there must have been several prisoners who wanted him dead – but who would take the risk of actually killing him? The young guard is assigned two awful duties  – investigating the murder, and taking over the position of censor. As a secret literature-lover he finds it incredibly difficult to destroy books; and how is he supposed to discover who was brave (or stupid) enough to murder Sugiyama?

A deep love of literature runs throughout this novel, in Watanabe and Yun Dong-ju (when they finally meet) and some unexpected sources; though literature is also viewed with suspicion by those (both prisoner and guard) who think it is elitist and that it shuns the uneducated. These opposing points of view form a fascinating dialogue that is taken up by various voices in The Investigation. The reader must consider all the negative and destructive ways in which literature can be used (like negative propaganda for example) against its many positive influences (education and intellectual freedom being the most important here).

This is at once a prison thriller, a crime novel, a philosophical text, and a paean to language and freedom. Lee’s writing, though translated, is clean and sparse but elegant. Nothing is overstated or clunky and though the subject matter and events are often dramatic and sometimes violent there is a sense of calm running through the book; although it may be resignation in our narrator’s voice. We learn at the start that Watanabe is telling this story from memory, now that his is a prisoner where he was once a guard. He thinks back to the short life of Yun Dong-ju, the one man who remained himself while in the prison. As a writer he is thought of as a dissident, and Watanabe speaks to him regularly as part of his murder investigation – though soon their meetings become more about poetry and philosophy than anything else. They also talk about Sugiyama, and the ways in which he and Yun affected each other’s lives.

There is also a lot to learn here about Japan and Korea during the Second World War, something I knew very little about. I did not know the extent of the hostilities between the two countries and was shocked at the hatred the Japanese guards have for the Korean inmates. They are considered beasts and must read and write only in Japanese. They are even given new Japanese names and forbidden to use their old ones. For us the Japanese were on ‘the other side’ during the War, and it is odd to hear characters worrying about the successes of the Allies and their ambivalence towards the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

Yun’s poetry features throughout the novel, as chapter titles and when he recites his poems to both Sugiyama and Watanabe. Words become a means of finding freedom, even in prison.

The sky of passing seasons

Is filled with autumn.


Without a single worry

I think I can count all the autumn stars.


The reason I can’t count all the starts carved

one by one in my heart is

because morning is coming,

because night will fall again tomorrow,

because my youth is not yet gone.


For one star, memory;

For one star, love;

For one star, loneliness;

For one star, longing;

For one star, poetry;

For one star, mother, mother.

Watanabe is utterly moved by Yun’s words and though they are on opposing sides the young guard becomes increasingly concerned with the wellbeing of such a man, one who contains so much freedom and who sees such beauty. But it is not that simple. In Fukuoka Prison they are both wrong, and both right. When it comes to war, art, and freedom, there are always two sides to every story.

Published in the UK in March 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.


1 thought on “The Investigation by Jung-Myung Lee”

  1. Great review – I can see this has moved you too. This has been one of my favourite books of the year so far (and not just of this year). Very memorable, especially for anyone who has ever had to deal with a repressive regime.


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