I was perusing the mystery section in the library while waiting for a tutoring student when I found Inspector O. I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a North Korean policeman as the protagonist of a mystery. The author, James Church, was identified on the back cover as “a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia”. This made the prospect more intriguing still. So I took out Bamboo and Blood and was far from disappointed.
It was out of sequence, so I later went back and read the series in order. There are only six in total. Church was already in retirement when he began writing and by what I can gather, over sixty. It wasn’t just myself that was impressed. A Korea Society panel praised the first book in the series for its realism and its ability to convey “the suffocating atmosphere of a totalitarian state”. I have never been to North Korea but I have been in the DMZ at Panmunjom and just that brief example of the North Korean mindset made the details of the books ring true.
There are some changes to and of the cast of characters over the years covered by the books, so while they stand by themselves, if read out of order t can be a little disconcerting. The pseudonymous Church first turned to fiction in A Corpse in the Koryo (2006). In A Corpse in the Koryo, O’s odd assignment is to take a photograph of a certain car, on a certain road. This seemingly straightforward task turns out to be anything but as it embroils him in a murder plot, government smuggling, and the legacy of North Korea’s infamous abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and ’80s. Then in succession came Hidden Moon (2007) and Bamboo and Blood (2008). In Hidden Moon O returns from a foreign assignment to a new boss and an actual case of bank robbery to investigate, something that should be impossible in North Korea. Is this bizarre occurrence really connected to a possible assassination and coup?
The plot of “Bamboo and Blood,” revolves around an Israeli effort to persuade North Korea to stop selling missiles to Arab countries in return for economic assistance and and the murder of a diplomat’s wife in Pakistan. This story returns to O during the extremes of winter and the famine that gripped the country in the mid-nineties that some experts estimate left almost 1 million dead. O must deal with his growling stomach as he investigates foreign arms deals. These three novels all feature the internecine struggles between O’s Ministry of Public Security (the police) and competing political directorates and the ubiquitous presence of Kim Jong-Il, the second leader of North Korea, who took over from his father in 1994. He is never mentioned by name, but his influence as “the central” is everywhere.
The fourth volume, The Man with the Baltic Stare came out two years later in 2010 and the fifth, A Drop of Chinese Blood, in 2012. The final book came out in 2016, The Gentleman from Japan. As the series goes on the plots get more convoluted, perhaps mirroring the labyrinthine international political maneuvering that never makes the headlines. The ambiguity and complexity are not to the taste of many readers.
Church’s real gift, however, lies in showing O and others around him as real people who still manage to maintain some humanity in a rigid and uncompromising system. Somewhat protected by being the grandson of a famous grandfather, anointed a “hero of the republic” for his service in the Korean War and as an anti-Japanese guerilla, his minor rebellions are chastised but tolerated. He is able to travel out of the country and consistently returns, rather than defect. In The Man With the Baltic Stare, through O Church sheds light on the puzzling mix of motives that lurk in the North Korean who stays put. His reasons are nuanced, and often illogical. In spite of his disillusionment with the North Korean “central,” O hates what others stand for even more, and his overseas trips have shown him plenty to condemn. His political skepticism is balanced by a Spartan North Korean taste for simple living. He especially despises South Korea’s surge into Western culture and cherishes a love for woodworking and the aphorisms passed on to him by his famous grandfather.
The fifth book introduces Inspector O’s nephew, Major Bing, the long-suffering chief of the Chinese Ministry of State Security operations on the border with North Korea.By this time, many years have gone by and O, knowing where too many skeletons are buried, is more comfortable in the People’s Republic of China, albeit in a town on the border with North Korea. Now he assists his nephew in navigating the pitfalls inherent in his own mysterious assignment as he does again in the sixth and last novel.
The history is more modern and the mysteries reflect this. Church’s books and Inspector O’s life experiences are fiction, but a fiction rooted deeply in reality. This may be the best way to get some insight into what is behind the posturing and rhetoric splashed across the headlines. This insight applies not just to North Korea but also to the countries and governments that have dealings with the North Korean regime, both overt and clandestine. At the same time you get plenty of mystery and a view of a country which you are unlikely to visit, even if you could get a visa.