Wednesday, October 20, 2010
A Corpse in the Koryo: An Inspector O Mystery
I'm continuing my habit of reading mystery/thriller books set in unusual locales . The latest is about a police inspector in North Korea. Really, North Korea.
The book opens with Inspector O being assigned to dawn surveillance on a deserted country road. The assignment: take photos of any cars that pass. When he returns to base, he hasn't any photos to show for his uncomfortable dawn vigil, because the camera's battery was dead. In North Korea, the police can't always put their hands on batteries.
So begins the slow unraveling of a mystery based on intense rivalry between the military and intelligence services, while simultaneously giving us insights into the privations of North Korean society. Inspector O is that traditional mystery character, the assiduous detective who really wants to find the truth, despite the web of intrigue that the bureaucracy weaves around him. O walks a tightrope between opposing forces, but he's not just fighting for his career. He's struggling to save his own life.
The author, James Church, is a pseudonym for a a Western intelligence officer with lots of experience in Asia. The picture he paints of North Korea is more evocative than all the news articles you read about this repressive, deprived country. One vignette that really brought it all home to me was O's experience with sandpaper. O's grandfather was a cabinet-maker, and O is assembling pieces of wood to build a bookcase. He has a cache of sandpaper he has brought back from various trips to the West because there is no sandpaper in North Korea. However, his apartment is searched and the sandpaper is confiscated, and he has only one used-up piece left, which he keeps in his office desk drawer.
This is Church's first book and I personally can't wait for a follow-up.