9 Dark K-Thrillers for Fans of ‘Squid Game’

There’s no dark fiction quite like a K-thriller. Here are some of the twistiest tales in Korean crime fiction.

Amid the great K-wave of the last few years, we've seen some twisty and surprising sagas of class warfare in Korean society: the over-the-top haves and the desperate have-nots. In many of these stories, there’s opportunity to rise above your appointed station—but you will pay for it with your soul, your spirit, and sometimes your life. Nowhere is this type of dark contemporary meditation on class more pronounced than in Netflix’s Squid Game and Bong Joon-Ho’s 2019 blockbuster film, Parasite. But Korean crime fiction can be just as intense, genre-bending, and provocative on similar themes. Thrown into the mix of K-thrillers, and not lightly, is intense psycho-drama, they couldn’t survive without this element and creators of Korean crime stories are not the least bit shy about “going there.” Let this selected list of listens guide you through this growing subgenre of Korean literature.

The Hole

After losing his wife in a devastating accident, Oghi wakes from a coma paralyzed and disfigured. His grieving mother-in-law is his only caretaker. Mysteriously, she starts digging up the garden his wife had painstakingly planted. When Oghia asks why, she explains that she’s finishing what her daughter started. Could it be his grave? This gripping novel is sure to stun as he discovers the truth about his wife and their life together.

I Hear Your Voice

This edge-of-your-seat audiobook centers on two boys: Jae, who was born in a bathroom stall in a bus terminal; the other, Dongyu, is born mute and can only communicate with Jae. Like other society castoffs, they join a motorcycle gang as a way of survival. Eventually, Jae becomes an icon, rising to the top of the gang, and a central target for the police as his gang becomes more and more aggressive. Jae and Dongyu’s friendship is ever-evolving from worship to loathing in this story of two lost young men.

The Good Son

The overarching question in this psychological thriller: Whom can you trust if you can’t trust yourself? Only 26-years-old, Yu-jin has trouble with his memory, having suffered seizures for most of his life. He lives with his mother in a stylish Seoul duplex. One morning, he gets a concerned call from his brother, asking about their mother. Soon, Yu-jin discovers her in pool of blood at the bottom of the duplex’s stairs. He thinks he remembers her calling his name. But he can’t figure out if she was calling for help...or begging for her life.

The Disaster Tourist

There’s nothing like a good thriller travel book. Yona is a coordinator for Jungle, a travel agency that specializes in vacation packages to destinations devastated by disaster and climate change. Trouble arises in the form of a predatory colleague. The company is concerned about this causing a disruption of their business. Yona is offered a “paid” vacation to the desert island of Mui, an unprofitable destination for Jungle, where she must pose as a tourist. During her stay, Yona discovers that the resort is planning to fabricate a costly catastrophe that will undoubtedly pose a danger to Mui’s citizens—and to herself.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

Kim, a 30-something “millennial everywoman,” lives in a small apartment on the outskirts of Seoul. She left her white-collar job to care for her newborn daughter, as many Korean women are expected to do. Everything seems normal, until Kim begins to impersonate the voices of other women—dead or alive. Her husband, alarmed, sends her to a psychiatrist, who is, naturally, a man. A chilling, third-person voice recounts Kim's entire life to the psychiatrist. In her world, she’s surrounded by controlling men who think they know what’s best for her. But can a male doctor discover what truly ails her?

The Only Child

It’s not every day a criminal psychologist receives a call from a serial killer, but Seonkyeong did. Yi Byeongdo, a known serial killer whose murders shook the world, wants to speak only to Seonkyeong. On the same day, a young girl, Hayeong, shows up at her door—she’s Seonkyeong husband’s daughter from a previous marriage and claims her mother died in a sudden fire. The girl says very little and acts strangely, masking an uncontrollable temper. Seonkyeong sees similarities between the girl and the serial killer, who suffered abuse as a child. Yi Byeongdo takes note and starts giving the little girl advice, creating a dangerous connection.

The Vegetarian

Yeong-hye’s ordinary life with her husband takes a turn when her dreams become wrought with images of blood and brutality torturing her. To purge her mind, she stops eating meat. This small act of independence becomes disruptive and creates a grotesque chain of events in her home. Her family tries to control her with more intrusive and perverse violations to her body and mind. This beautiful yet unsettling novel is about a woman’s struggle to break free from the violence around her and within her.

Seven Years of Darkness

After a young girl’s body is found in a reservoir, the police begin their investigation. But her father, Yongje, and two security guards, each hiding something about the night of her death, enter into a dangerous game of cat and mouse to uncover the truth without revealing their own secrets. Ultimately, one of the guards is convicted and sent to prison. For seven years, Sowon lives in his father's shadow and tries to escape being exposed as a murderer's son. One day, Sowon receives a package that promises to tell all—forcing him to confront a danger he never knew existed.

If I Had Your Face

This contemporary novel is about four young women, each on a different path as they try to establish their lives in South Korea. Beautiful Kyuri entertains businessmen in an exclusive underground bar. Kyuri's roommate, Miho grew up in an orphanage but won an art scholarship to study in New York. Ara, who lives in their building, is a hairstylist obsessed with the star of a boy band and a best friend who’s saving up for extreme plastic surgery. And then there’s Wonna, a newlywed trying to have a baby but without the means to support it. Their unexpected friendships just might be what saves them.


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