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A Corpse in the Koryo (Inspector O Novels) Hardcover – October 17, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In an impressive debut that calls to mind such mystery thrillers as Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, the pseudonymous Church, a former intelligence officer, provides a rare look into one of the world's most closed societies, North Korea. When Inspector O, a state security officer, is called on the carpet for botching a sensitive surveillance assignment, O soon realizes that competing forces in the military and intelligence hierarchies set him up to fail and that his personal and professional well-being depend on his walking a tightrope. The detective's pragmatic if unwavering commitment to the ideals of pursuing justice in the face of serious obstacles makes him a heroic figure who's well suited to carry future entries in what one hopes will be a long-lived series. Despite the exotic setting, Hammett and Chandler would have had no problem appreciating this hard-boiled narrative. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Inspector O, a North Korean state police officer, is given an unusual assignment: go to a certain part of a certain road at dawn and photograph a certain vehicle. Little does he suspect that this seemingly inconsequential task will escalate into a case that will lead him to risk his job, and his life. The (pseudonymous) author, a veteran intelligence officer, has intimate knowledge of Asian life and politics, and it shows: he gives the North Korea setting a feeling of palpable reality, depicting the nature of daily life under a totalitarian government not just with broad sociopolitical descriptions but also with specific everyday details. Inspector O is completely believable and sympathetic, a working cop who isn't entirely sure he believes in the things his government tells him to believe in. Comparisons to J. Robert Janes' series set in occupied France and costarring Gestapo detective Kohler are inevitable, but there is also a little of Martin Cruz Smith's early Arkady Renko novels here. The writing is superb, too, well above the level usually associated with a first novel, richly layered and visually evocative. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
Just for example, “The train to Pyongyang was late. Not like some places, where a late train means twenty minutes, even an hour on a bad day. This train didn’t come that day, or the next.”
Based in Pyongyang, the country’s largest city and its capital, Inspector O — yes, his name really is “O,” which is a common Korean surname, though more often spelled Oh, Oe, or Au — is an investigator with the Ministry of People’s Security, his territory a large swath of the capital. (The Ministry is apparently what would be called the police in other countries.) Shortly after O’s boss, Chief Inspector Pak, meets with the secretive “Captain” (really, Colonel) Kim, from Military Security Command, Inspector O’s reasonably predictable life begins to unravel. It soon emerges that a high-stakes feud is underway between Colonel Kim and Deputy Director Kang from the rival Investigations Department, an agency that seems to be analogous to the CIA. And there seems to be an uneasy connection between Kang and Pak. For starters, then, we’ve learned about three warring police agencies, and the word “warring” is no exaggeration. It transpires that “something big” is about to happen, something that seemingly will alter the destiny of all three agencies and prove to be a matter of life and death for O, Pak, and Kang. It has something to do with Japan, but we’re never quite sure what.
Yes, it’s all monumentally confusing, and the story doesn’t get any easier to understand until near the end. The author spoon-feeds us the backstory through a series of conversations between Inspector O and an Irishman named Richie Molloy, who is apparently an officer of Britain’s MI6. Molloy has cornered O in a hotel room in Budapest or Prague while O was on a mission for Pak and is recording his account of Wang’s comings and goings. These conversations alternate with the slowly unfolding story of O’s investigation into a murder that doesn’t actually take place until midway through the book! Apparently, Wang has something going for himself in Finland, and the murdered man is a Finn, as is an attractive young woman who turns up in O’s investigation. Why there should be so many Finns showing up in North Korea is beyond me. Yes, confusing.
Perhaps, though, that confusion is really the point of the tale. As Inspector O declares in an exchange with Richie, “where I live, we don’t solve cases. What is a solution in a reality that never resolves itself into anything definable? . . . I don’t connect dots. Unnecessary, because I know that nothing is a straight line. Everything is circles, overlapping circles that bleed into each other . . . For me, life consists of badly limited possibilities, but I know the parts are endlessly rearranged, always shifting, always changing. Nobody puts down their foot twice in the same place. I once heard a Westerner say, ‘What you see is what you get.’ We laughed for days about that in the office. Nothing is like that. Nobody is like that.”
James Church is a pseudonym for the American author of this and four other Inspector O novels. The books in the series have been praised by North Korea watchers as unusually perceptive. So maybe all that confusion is real.
This book is the first in the series that introduces the reader to Inspector O. It also introduces the reader to the horrible and byzantine politics that are the norm in North Korea. Inspector O works in the Ministry of People’s Security and what begins as a routine murder investigation turns into something far more diabolical. There are conflicting political agenda that threaten not just the investigation but even O’s life. Under the circumstances, he handles matters very adroitly.
Although I have no knowledge of North Korea beyond that of most people, I found James Church’s description of places and events as quite plausible. I’m not sure if the author has travelled beyond the DMV or not. Regardless, his prose certainly captures a country that is very different from anywhere else on earth. He is to be commended.
I look forward to further adventures with the redoubtable Inspector O.
The story needs a little more fleshing out. More but brief descriptives, perhaps, of the settings in the various locations of North Korea. Assuming someone has good geographical knowledge of the DPRK was not a good idea. Assuming anyone has any idea of DPRK government departmental infrastructure and the politics within wasn't good either. The corpse really didn't matter and neither did it matter if it was at the Koryo or not.
Maybe the whole mystery story setup is a bit too subtle to me? Maybe that's the point? Society in North Korea to those of us who've never visited nor lived there might not "get it"? Perhaps that's the point of the story? The dialogue feels like its all indirect. It's not just what a character is saying but how they say it, how chatty a taciturn or closed individual would be, and what is not said at all. Maybe part of the story is beneath the veneer of the DPRK - for instance, phones exist but information seems to travel quickly by other methods.
The "chat" with the Irishman is totally beyond me at this point. It might be relevant for future volumes but here it's all kind of out "in the cold."
Most recent customer reviews
Interesting "take on North Korea.