Planet Mystery: North Korea

October 18, 2010

North Korea is perhaps not the first place one might consider as a setting when writing a noir detective novel. A few hardy souls have used the enigmatic dictatorship for one-off novels (David Hagberg’s thriller The Expediter jumps to mind), but even those are thin on the ground. James Church, however, has taken the plunge and written not one, but four novels (thus far) featuring Inspector O, an operative for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s paranoid and highly dysfunctional Ministry of Public Security.

I picked up a pair of Inspector O novels while visiting the offices of BookPage in Nashville a few months back, and just recently finished the first, Bamboo and Blood.

The back cover mentions that Church is a pseudonym for a “former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia.” That is quite easy to believe, as his novels (I am now working on my second one, Hidden Moon) display a sense of place and detail equal to Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, or Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Additionally, Church is a master craftsman when it comes to dialog and action (think Stieg Larsson or Ian Rankin, and you won’t be far off).

As Bamboo and Blood opens, Inspector O and his associate Chief Inspector Pak are hot on the trail of a man who has eluded their none-too-covert surveillance, a man who may well be an Israeli spy. This of course begs the question: what on earth would an Israeli spy be doing in North Korea, of all places? It is no simple task to track him down, either, as he has absconded into the icy mountains, taking his minders by surprise, catching them ill-prepared for the subzero temperatures and keening winds. To make matters even more uncomfortable, it seems that two rival government security services are in contention with one another in some inscrutable way, and stepping upon one another’s toes, at first accidentally, and later with some purpose. Tensions flare when the wife of a North Korean diplomat is killed in Pakistan, and Inspector O is chosen to investigate; well, perhaps “investigate” is a strong word, for he is not to delve too deeply into the details, and whatever else he may do, avoid at all costs the topic of missiles. So it goes almost without saying that soon Inspector O will find himself waist-deep in illicit missiles, and the target of a killer intent on burying damaging international secrets (and there is plenty of room in that particular grave for our intrepid inspector as well).

Church’s descriptions of North Korean life capture the frustration of a government and a people hobbled by inadequate basics (food, shelter, transport) as well as a raging paranoia about dangers both within and outside the country.

The remaining two Inspector O books that I have not read will accompany me to Japan next month, providing a bit of a break from back-to-back movies on the 16-hour plane trip, and on the two-plus-hour trip from the airport to my apartment in Western Tokyo, by which time I will be quite weary, and perhaps checking out my fellow travelers with a bit of literature-induced (and unjustified, I hope) suspicion and paranoia. More on that in a month or so…