A Corpse in the Koryo

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 February, 2007, 12:00am

A Corpse in the Koryo

by James Church

Thomas Dunne/St Martin's Minotaur, HK$187

Inspector O is, in most respects, a typical crime-novel hero. A world-weary idealist who gulps vodka and speaks in clipped cop patois, cut from the same timeworn cloth as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. But there's one big difference: Inspector O works for the North Korean government.

Therein lies the ingenious conceit of James Church's debut novel, a hard-boiled police procedural set in the world's harshest police state.

The pseudonymous author, who claims to be a former western intelligence agent, seems to have more than a passing familiarity with the terrain. He writes vividly about the mountains that are central to North Korea's national mythology, for instance. Elsewhere, he describes a deflating encounter between Inspector O and one of Pyongyang's notoriously officious female traffic officers.

''This is a controlled intersection,' she tells O as he huffs around the decaying capital city on his battered bicycle. 'And I control it. No bikes. No pedestrians. Just cars.' There wasn't a car in sight.'

Church doesn't shy away from North Korea's bleaker aspects - it's certainly no accident that O's name echoes that of a Kafka character. And the paranoia of the regime lends the novel an air of unseen malevolence. But A Corpse in the Koryo is largely unburdened by politics or polemic. Church simply uses the country's suffocating totalitarianism as a noir backdrop to a story of political murder and factional intrigue.

The story is set in motion when O is assigned to photograph a car speeding along a rural highway (typical of a country that seems in perpetual disrepair, his camera malfunctions). Quickly enough, he's dealing with murderous cadres, enigmatic prostitutes and a cadaver that may or may not be a European nuclear inspector. Church's plot is a little overgrown, but it does serve to suggest that there's an intricate structure of corruption and machination behind North Korea's rigid face.

Church's debut may invite comparison to Martin Cruz Smith's novels featuring grizzled Soviet detective Arkady Renko. Inspector O is certainly a similarly idiosyncratic lead. O, who runs afoul of his superiors for refusing to wear his Kim Jong-il lapel badge and who yearns, Tantalus-like, for a cup of tea that seems forever beyond his grasp, is neither ideologue nor reformer, and it's largely through him that Church sketches the mindset of the average North Korean.

'We're real, every one of us,' O tells a westerner who parrots platitudes about the hermit kingdom. 'Don't forget it. And, yes, I have been overseas. Some things are good, some things aren't, same as here. Nothing is perfect. This godforsaken country, as you call it, is where I live. This is my home.'

Of course, Church cannot explain how the regime inspires such loyalty, or how it endures despite near-universal international abhorrence of its methods. The psychological bond between the police state and its enforcers may be a mystery too tangled for even this dogged gumshoe.