Sixty five year old Hornclaw is beginning to feel her age, not least so because she is a contract assassin. Attached to an agency specialising in ‘disease control,’ she has spent most of her life wielding her knife out of sticky situations in a cool, calm, collected fashion. But it’s only now that her age finally seems to be catching up with her. Things come to a head when she ends up at the doctor’s following an injury on the job, and suspicions are raised. The unravelling of Hornclaw’s situation follows, set against universal themes. Gu Byeong-mo is a prolific Korean author, but this is her first novel to be translated into English.

Hornclaw, by virtue of the intersection of age, gender and profession, is a unique protagonist. And through her eyes, the author explores ageism, the generational gap in modern society, and the treatment of elders in far eastern cultures. Hornclaw ponders her eventual fate in the company whose culture has evolved from ‘her times’. And while her profession has hardened her identity, age makes her vulnerability appealing to the reader.

Her encounter with Dr Kang opens her emotions up to introspection. And through his mannerisms, she is reminded of her mentor Ryu. She is also interested in the doctor’s family and how his parents are slowly being left behind by the rapid modernisation of everyday shopping. The novel veers quickly between holding up a mirror to society and the thrill of Hornclaw’s life, sometimes a bit too quickly. The characters are intriguing, and a slower arc would give them deserved justice.

This not-quite-crime-thriller thriller is sure to appeal to fans of East Asian noir, particularly the complexity of societal structures. The book shines through the last few chapters in the detailed writing and the raw visceral action. It is certainly an interesting foray into Korean writing in translation.