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From The Asian Reporter, V18, #5 (January 29, 2008), page 16.
Police meet politics in North Korea
A Corpse in the Koryo
By James Church
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2006
Hardcover, 280 pages, $23.95
By Mike Street
Special to The Asian Reporter
Being a policeman in a police state should be a snap, right? Wrong. As James Church so vividly shows in his first novel, A Corpse in the Koryo, the life of a lowly policeman in North Korea is no easy task.
Following in the footsteps of Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko, a principled detective fighting the system in Soviet Moscow, Church offers us Inspector O and a murder mystery that may affect not only the future of O and his family, but of the entire oppressive North Korean regime. The result is a tightly wound thriller that will grip readers even as it offers a rare glimpse into the closed totalitarian state.
"James Church" is actually a pseudonym for a former Western intelligence officer who worked many years throughout Asia and Korea, and his expertise shows on every page. The details of the case ring with authority, even as the prose itself is smooth and engaging — clearly, Church learned how to write well, too. His Inspector O must navigate the complex shoals of the black market, official regulations, power-drunk minor officials, and the constant surveillance accorded all North Korean citizens, all while trying to crack a case with implications reaching into the highest branches of government. And, worse, the independent and likeable O can never seem to find a cup of tea when he wants one.
The novel frames the mystery with an ongoing conversation between Inspector O and a Western intelligence agent, Richie Molloy. Using such a device not only permits us to learn more about North Korean culture — Molloy and O argue frequently about cultural and political issues — it gives us a sketchy notion of what Church must have done in this area. It’s easy to see Molloy as an analogue for Church, as Molloy’s interest in the case relates mostly to its implications to the Korean government, although his motives are never quite clear. Both men are experts at hiding their own feelings and intentions, lending extra tension to the dual storylines, which Church juggles quite capably. The frame story also occasionally undercuts the tension, by revealing facts (including the death of an important character) well before the central story does. But it is, on the whole, an effective device, especially from a first-time writer like Church.
The case itself is a simple one, to the point that it becomes quickly subsumed by the swirling activity around it. An unidentified man with false Finnish identification papers is found at the Koryo, the main luxury hotel in Pyongyang. Instantly, a squabble erupts among various government agencies over how the investigation will be handled — the Foreign Ministry wants to avoid a scandal, while Military Security has an interest they won’t reveal, yet they refuse to get involved on O’s behalf.
Surrounding it all is the mystery of the car O is sent to photograph at the start of the book, and the conniving Kim and Kang who try to pull O and his superior, Pak, in different directions. O never knows whom to trust — but he knows he can’t really trust anyone, not in a society where he has to leave a note for the secret police to be neater when they routinely ransack his room.
Inspector O is sent around the country, giving us glimpses of how outlaw border towns differ from the tightly controlled capital, as well as the ways North Koreans circumvent the constant presence of oppressive party officials. O himself is no card-carrying, blind follower of regulations; his simple refusal to wear the party’s pin on his shirt is enough to get him into trouble with every official he meets. And even as we root for the well-intentioned O to discover the truth, we know his quest is quixotic and fruitless. Life covers the truth in so many layers, and the repressive, secretive regime of North Korea only adds to the confusion.
A Corpse in the Koryo ends up being only nominally about the unidentified corpse, of course, and some readers might feel as powerless as Inspector O as they are dragged with him from town to town and from corrupt official to crafty agent. But such is Church’s talent that we know this is his intention, for this book is a piece of the country that is its setting. Gripping, fascinating, and with a plot with more twists and turns than a rural mountain road, Corpse in the Koryo will entertain and enlighten fans of spy thrillers as well as those looking for a glimpse behind the impenetrable North Korean borders.