Books review: James Church — A Corpse in the Koryo

James Church: A Corpse in the Koryo
Thomas Dunne Books, 2006
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Inspector O is a maverick. No respecter of authority, he answers back to his boss, he drives the departmental car without permission, and even, horror of horrors, refuses to wear his Kim Il-sung badge. Not another cliché cop, you might groan. Well, he doesn’t have a drink problem, doesn’t get his girl, keeps getting hit on the head, and travels the length and breadth of the country totally failing to find a nice cup of tea. All in all, pretty useless as maverick cops go.

But he is efficient in picking up on the clues and putting them together, which is what matters, and he has an interesting family history, which hopefully will be explored further in future instalments.

Other things about Inspector O: on his trips abroad, he’s not interested in loading his suitcase with fancy foreign goods he can sell back home. He’s just looking for some decent medium grade sandpaper. And he’s a humorous narrator:

I knew what had happened; I’d been through it before. The place had been treated more like a museum than a murder scene, officials rotating glumly through, stopping here and there, a few rocking back and forth as they stood, glancing at their watches and wondering if it was near lunchtime. If there was a single real clue left in the room, it would be a miracle. Hotel security had wandered in, but they had probably accomplished nothing useful beyond nervously gripping a chair for support, fretting about getting blamed, and wondering how to make a finding of “natural causes” compatible with a crushed skull.

and

Referring to the Leader and a baby’s bottom in the same breath was vaguely troubling.

I guess most maverick cops are also wise guys.

The plot? Convoluted enough to keep most spy / mystery thriller fans occupied, involving the porous border with China, Korea-Japan relations, inter-deparmental rivalry, and a few violent goons always hot on the hero’s tail (or a few steps ahead). It’s a world where you’re not sure who the good guys are, where even the ajumma selling snacks by the station is in the pay of one security agency or other. I was grateful for the Scooby Doo moment a few pages before the end (but no, it wasn’t the hotel manager that did it):

I’ve got most of this figured out, Kang. Only a few things I don’t understand.

This gave the cue for most of the loose ends to be tied up. Fortunately there are enough unresolved threads to make one look forward to a sequel, rumoured to be later this year. Maybe O will get his cuppa next time round.

Great fun.

Links:

  • Buy A Corpse in the Koryo at Amazon
  • Read an extended feature on A Corpse in the Koryo at The Independent
  • “This novel should be required bedtime reading for President Bush and his national security team.” Glenn Kessler’s article on A Corpse in the Koryo in the Washington Post entitled The Book on North Korea (27 Dec 2006)

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