Book review: Yin Yang Tattoo by Ron McMillan

Yin Yang Tattoo
by Ron McMillan
Sandstone, 2010

Photographer Alec Brodie is in hiding from his many creditors in London when he receives an offer that seems too good to be true: go to Korea (where he had previously lived for some years) to work on the corporate brochure for the K-N group, a large company, for oodles of money. Using most of his advance to stave off the worst of the looming financial disaster, Brodie nevertheless flies business class to Seoul and has plenty to drink on the plane. On arrival, he’s met and taken to a 5-star hotel, but has to give his own maxed-out credit card as security. Over the next few days, Brodie avails himself generously of luxurious food, drink, brand names and consumer lifestyle, most revoltingly when on his first night he is taken out to dinner to a Japanese restaurant and is fawned on by a hostess who later comes to his hotel room and….yes, you have guessed it.

Brodie learns that K-N is interested in expanding into North Korea, which would be a first for a South Korean business and revive its allegedly flagging fortunes. He is not prepared for the shock of his first assignment, though, which involves photographing a factory and its workers in a fake North Korea as part of an attempt by K-N to attract financial investment. Soon, Brodie is plunged into dangerous territory as someone he knows is killed, and he has been set up as the obvious suspect for the crime. Can he keep one step ahead, and who can he trust from the assortment of hangers on, diplomats, old friends and enemies he’s met during the course of the novel? Will we find out why Brodie was beaten up by the Korean police 15 years previously?

Yin Yang Tattoo is an exciting read, replete with many somewhat over-written details about the (popular) culture and environment of Korea, not a country that features in crime fiction so far as I am aware, which are interesting even if they don’t make one exactly desperate to visit that country! The financial part of the plot is certainly topical and apt. Unfortunately for me, though, I found Brodie an odious person with a repellent attitude to women (he is particularly sexist in his terminology about and behaviour to Korean women, including an old girlfriend). As I could hardly bear to read about him (he’s the narrator so the reader is privy to his thoughts and attitudes) I took refuge in hoping that he’d get his comeuppance, but suspected that he would not as he is presented as a “flawed hero” rather than the offensive character I found him to be.

I was sent this book by the author.

Other reviews of Yin Yang Tattoo are at: ROK Drop, Asia Times, Shots and Simon Varwell.

Article about the Korean location, including the author’s graphic video trailer, at Crime Fiction Lover.

About the book at the publisher’s website.

14 thoughts on “Book review: Yin Yang Tattoo by Ron McMillan

  1. Your summary of the plot does sound tempting as I have a penchance for conspiracy plots and political intrigue. I don’t think I’ve read a Korean thriller either before – I might give it a go.

  2. Maxine – The Korean setting and culture here really do fascinate me. But I’m so, so tired of “heroes” like Brodie. Really I am. Ummm…no, thanks – ‘least for now. But thank you for an excellent, candid and thorough review.

  3. I really want to read a mystery set in Korea, but as other readers above have expressed, reading about one more “flawed” hero who reeks with sexism — who needs that? And why doesn’t someone write about a woman protagonist in Korea? Maybe someone has, but the larger reading world doesn’t yet know.

  4. Pingback: January reading report | Petrona

  5. Pingback: Yin Yang Tatoo by Ron McMillan | Petrona Book Reviews archive

  6. As a mystery-crime-suspense thriller lover, I was delighted to find out about this website. Finally a reviewer not on someone’s payroll. Hooray! But then I was like “Oh, no! They dumped on a book I really liked.” Okay, full disclosure – I lived in Korea for most of the 80s and pretty much liked the place (despite the things that drove me nuts). It’s kind of like their kimchee – love it or hate it, no middle ground. Which is why I was delighted when a friend gave me a copy of Yin Yang Tattoo when she came back from the U.K. (seems it’s published over there). “Wow, not just a fiction book on Korea but a crime thriller! Please, please, please be a good read!” Sure, I hoped I’d like it because I wanted a stroll down memory lane, but then bingo – I really liked it. That’s why I was taken aback by the review here. “Did we read the same book?” I don’t mean the plot summary in the review, which was excellent (and kudos to Petrona for adding those links to other reviews, which I didn’t know existed). It was the other comments and a bit of the reviewer’s tone.

    Okay, Brodie is no hero, flawed or otherwise, and assuming first-person narration means we’re getting the main character’s thoughts, Brodie himself seems to know he’s a jerk when it comes to women, and his lack of self-control is part of it. And it’s simply an ugly fact of life that men going to Korea for high-level business reasons (major sales, diplomatic what-not) may well find a prostitute offered as part of the deal. I heard about it enough from Koreans there, so that didn’t shock me. Plus Brodie does get his comeuppance, unlike a lot of other jerks, fictional or real world. Does he ever! SPOILER ALERT – LOOK AWAY NOW. In addition to the brutal physical beatings he takes, he has to run for his life when he’s framed for murder. But most painful, if we believe that this jerk may actually be waking up at a late hour in his life, is that the one woman he realizes that he truly wants in his life flips him off at the end, her revenge for his years of ugly, thoughtless treatment. She sticks it to him and the dog of a husband she was pushed into marrying precisely because of Brodie’s failures with her.

    Since I’ve lived in Korea, I also don’t know what those “overwrought” details were that bothered the reviewer, but I found the cultural description not only spot on and vivid in a way you just can’t get in any book on the country I’ve seen – floods of memories for me, good and bad – but they were also useful to the story and apparently appealing to readers who’ve never been there, which is what my small book club said when I chose Yin Yang Tattoo for our monthly selection (and believe me, they haven’t always shared my tastes). I guess the more I thought about the review and the book (and the country that I basically like), the more the kimchee idea came back to me. First time I ever tasted kimchee in Korea, I was like “Gak! Who died with their old gym socks still on?” Kimchee smacks you in the face and dares you to try it again. But if you do, you’ll find the flavor transforms into something oh-so savory. And if you keep at it, you get hooked. Now I love the stuff, and I loved Yin Yang Tattoo in spite of the main character. So to anyone who likes fast-paced intrigue in an exotic but very vivid setting, and who wants to see a jerk gets his just desserts, I would recommend this book. I hope this guy writes more.

    • I don’t have the strength to respond to this comment. I get it that you like the book. Let’s just agree to disagree.

  7. My memory of reading this enjoyable, fast-paced & humorous thriller is that Brodie has sex and speaks plainly about it, which does not equal sexist. I’m unsure sure what this reviewer would prefer an action hero to do in Seoul – read Proust? (I’m a woman, BTW.)

    • I imagine there are other choices apart from having sex with a hostess and reading Proust, Bobbie. I found the protagonist’s thoughts and attitudes to women including the hostess and his ex-Korean girlfriend whom he abandoned previously, sexist and racist. “Action heroes” as you call them, eg those depicted by Deon Meyer, don’t behave in this way.

      • … er, I was joking about Proust, Maxine. xx

        (Maxine responds: and I was joking in my reply to you on that point, Bobbie).

  8. I found this an exciting, fast paced story, right to the end. Thank goodness the author threw political correctness to the wind and told it like it really is. Very refreshing! If readers wish to read about handsome, well mannered, well groomed males, perhaps they should stick to Mills and Boon with their ‘rugged good looks, square chins and aqualine noses’!! Whilst Brodie would not be an obvious choice of life long partner, Ron McMillan’s skill makes you feel that you want the guy to be given a break, however small.
    Having never read anything set in Korea before, the author’s wonderful, highly detailed description of the sights, sounds, smells etc, left me feeling that I had actually been there.
    I will definitely be first in the queue for the sequel!

  9. In view of this “Ron McMillan Facebook friends invasion” I am turning off commenting for this post, as I prefer commenters here to be genuine readers of a post/this blog.

Comments are closed.