Cover image of "A Corpse in the Koryo," a novel about murder in North Korea.

Practically nothing works. Government, police protection, buildings, cars, roads, appliances, telephones — whatever: they’re either falling apart, damaged beyond repair, or, if you’re lucky, barely functioning. Welcome to North Korea in the 21st century, where nothing gets done without a bribe, and it’s even difficult to find a cup of tea when you want one. It all comes to light in this novel about murder in North Korea.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Just for example, “The train to Pyongyang was late. Not like some places, where a late train means twenty minutes, even an hour on a bad day. This train didn’t come that day, or the next.”

Based in Pyongyang, the country’s largest city and its capital, Inspector O — yes, his name really is “O,” which is a common Korean surname, though more often spelled Oh, Oe, or Au — is an investigator with the Ministry of People’s Security, his territory a large swath of the capital. (The Ministry is apparently what would be called the police in other countries.) Shortly after O’s boss, Chief Inspector Pak, meets with the secretive “Captain” (really, Colonel) Kim, from Military Security Command, Inspector O’s reasonably predictable life begins to unravel.

A Corpse in the Koryo (Inspector O #1) by James Church ★★★☆☆

It soon emerges that a high-stakes feud is underway between Colonel Kim and Deputy Director Kang from the rival Investigations Department, an agency that seems to be analogous to the CIA. And there seems to be an uneasy connection between Kang and Pak. For starters, then, we’ve learned about three warring police agencies, and the word “warring” is no exaggeration. It transpires that “something big” is about to happen, something that seemingly will alter the destiny of all three agencies and prove to be a matter of life and death for O, Pak, and Kang. It has something to do with Japan, but we’re never quite sure what.

Confusing until the end

Yes, it’s all monumentally confusing, and the story doesn’t get any easier to understand until near the end. The author spoon-feeds us the backstory through a series of conversations between Inspector O and an Irishman named Richie Molloy, who is apparently an officer of Britain’s MI6. Molloy has cornered O in a hotel room in Budapest or Prague while O was on a mission for Pak and is recording his account of Wang’s comings and goings. These conversations alternate with the slowly unfolding story of O’s investigation into a murder that doesn’t actually take place until midway through the book! Apparently, Wang has something going for himself in Finland, and the murdered man is a Finn, as is an attractive young woman who turns up in O’s investigation. Why there should be so many Finns showing up in North Korea is beyond me. Yes, confusing.

Perhaps, though, that confusion is really the point of the tale. As Inspector O declares in an exchange with Richie, “where I live, we don’t solve cases. What is a solution in a reality that never resolves itself into anything definable? . . . I don’t connect dots. Unnecessary, because I know that nothing is a straight line. Everything is circles, overlapping circles that bleed into each other . . . For me, life consists of badly limited possibilities, but I know the parts are endlessly rearranged, always shifting, always changing. Nobody puts down their foot twice in the same place. I once heard a Westerner say, ‘What you see is what you get.’ We laughed for days about that in the office. Nothing is like that. Nobody is like that.”

James Church is a pseudonym for the American author of this and four other Inspector O novels. The books in the series have been praised by North Korea watchers as unusually perceptive. So maybe all that confusion is real.

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