Deep Roots: A mystery ~ By Sung J. Woo
(Agora Books, Polis (NJ), 2023, ISBN #978-1-957957-37-1)
Review by Martha Vickery (Fall 2023)
Deep Roots is the second novel in a series by Korean American author Sung J. Woo, who chose for his protagonist a Korean American adoptee private eye with the very Irish name of Siobhan O’Brien. Siobhan has inherited her small detective business from her predecessor in a surprising way, which is related in the first novel of the series, and in this story, Siobhan delves into the ancient beliefs of Koreans about the outsize importance of the elder male successor. The story also interrogates the moral and ethical implications of artificial intelligence, and questions what life and personality really are.
Vibing on the ethnic mixology of many transnational and transracial adoptee names, we find out in this novel that Siobhan has an African American adoptee brother, Sven O’Brien. With a title like Deep Roots, readers from a certain Korean American adoptee cultural perspective may easily imagine that our hero Siobhan is going to discover something about her own roots in the course of this story. But those readers would be disappointed.
Instead, this author offers only a minor subplot that is a back-story reveal about Siobhan. Building on his first story Skin Deep, Woo explains about Siobhan’s adoptive family, described as an Irish-Norwegian couple from Minnesota. In a mystery series, authors are usually stingy about revealing their hero’s personal history, and tend to give out back-story pieces a few at a time. This author has followed that tradition.
Beyond that, the author has Siobhan play her part straight, at least as straight as the personal soft-boiled detective style novel allows. The title Deep Roots apparently refers to a rich family, the Ahns, who are the subject of Siobhan’s investigation. There is an entertaining mix of out-there, wacky characters, an exploration of the limits and excesses possible with artificial intelligence, and a cultural exploration that things can go terribly wrong when a family relies on Confucian beliefs about how succession works in a family business.
By so doing, the kingpin of the business ignores the obvious business acumen and good intentions of other family members around him, nearly destroying his family and the business he believes in so completely.
At the center of this mystery is one Phillip Ahn, an elderly billionaire who live on his own island in the Pacific Northwest, along with his two ex-wives, current wife, and their children, three daughters and one son in all, plus two grandchildren. The family members live in an immense technologically-autonomous hideaway full of servants and devices to fulfill every human need, as a condition of their future inheritance. They are all required to make their residence at the estate, Woodford, for a certain number of days per year, and have mandatory meals together. This forced, controlled cohabitation causes problems and rivalries of its own, even before the situation with the business/family succession comes to a head.
The elder Ahn is determined to pass on his business to his eldest (in this case only) son Duke, the youngest of the four children and still a college student. Siobhan does not have to go too far into her investigation to learn that the Duke has neither the skills, intellect or desire to own the business. The elder daughters, particularly Evie, have the skills and experience needed for leadership in the Ahn company.
Siobhan is hired because the elder Ahn is convinced that Duke is an imposter. It is a rather extraordinary claim, as everyone in his orbit, from family members to servants, has known Duke all of their lives. If Duke were to be an imposter, Ahn’s entire plan for the succession of his enormous business and careful control of his large and diverse family would both be upended. A lot is riding on the investigation Siobhan is hired to do.
To do the investigation, however, Siobhan would need a working knowledge of artificial intelligence technology, which she does not have. Siobhan is described as a middle-aged working person – she has learned to be a technology user, but not a natural at the topic. That’s why she needs Beaker, an excessively tall and enthusiastic college student she hires to do things like on-line searches and other modern methods of information retrieval. Beaker is delighted with the technology that makes the Woodford estate run, and his curiosity proves crucial to their investigation. She needs to stay at Woodford to interview its residents and eventually brings him there too.
Siobhan is dogged, has an analytical mind, and knows how to run down an idea. Beaker knows how to get data (about DNA, various family members’ pasts, and other personal information obtainable on the internet), and and Siobhan knows how to assemble the puzzle pieces. The two of them eventually force the truth from the juggernaut that is the Ahn empire.
The ideas in this story are futuristic, and seem very sci-fi, but in fact, the technological concepts are right around the corner. One example is the personal drones that follow the family members and guests around the gigantic complex that is their home. Everyone is tracked and videoed at all times. Virtual meetings become the same as in-person meetings. Everyone can immediately know where one another are located. There is very little the suspects can do to sneak around, like in a normal murder mystery.
Another example is the crux of the story. Right after Siobhan is hired, the elder Ahn promptly vanishes. He wears an implanted life monitor – because of course he does, as do all of the Ahn family members. When the monitor tracker goes silent, the family members meet about the will, and are eerily not questioning, but rather just assuming, that Ahn has either died naturally or committed suicide. They trust his technology implicitly.
However, Ahn makes several video calls to Siobhan after he is declared missing, providing information and suggesting courses of action in her investigation, but avoiding the subject of where he is and what he is doing. Siobhan still wonders if Ahn is alive or dead, and entertains the possibility that he may have made a sort of “deep fake” of himself, merging videos of past calls, his own voice, and the sum total of his personality, language use, logic and skills into an AI character that is more a “deep real” than a “deep fake.”
This introduces the very deep and intriguing subject of what personality is, and whether a person with the right technological know-how could extend their life into the future as an artificial being, and what the purpose of such an effort would be. Ahn’s predicament would seem to suggest that one purpose might be to stick around and make sure the succession of one’s family business goes to plan.
Indeed, the question of whether he did this, or whether he is actually alive somewhere, is never answered, and the successful wrap-up of the story does not require it. The family’s predicament may have been set into motion by Ahn, but it has been exacerbated by a whole different set of perpetrators for their own reasons.
There is a gender-bending conclusion to the mystery as well, which also suggests many social conundrums now under scrutiny – including how binary or non-binary humans are, and whether we in modern society can be expected to observe traditions and laws that were written to elevate one gender and oppress the other.
Woo has used a serial detective structure as a hook on which to hang a lot of current events and issues for readers to contemplate, and has done it in a story that holds our interest and keeps us guessing until almost the last page. As a mystery story, Deep Roots unravels a mind-bending tale, and we get to follow it through Siobhan’s persistence, inquiring mind, and sharp wits.