A Corpse in the Koryo Paperback – Sep 4 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In an impressive debut that calls to mind such mystery thrillers as Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, the pseudonymous Church, a former intelligence officer, provides a rare look into one of the world's most closed societies, North Korea. When Inspector O, a state security officer, is called on the carpet for botching a sensitive surveillance assignment, O soon realizes that competing forces in the military and intelligence hierarchies set him up to fail and that his personal and professional well-being depend on his walking a tightrope. The detective's pragmatic if unwavering commitment to the ideals of pursuing justice in the face of serious obstacles makes him a heroic figure who's well suited to carry future entries in what one hopes will be a long-lived series. Despite the exotic setting, Hammett and Chandler would have had no problem appreciating this hard-boiled narrative. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
*Starred Review* Inspector O, a North Korean state police officer, is given an unusual assignment: go to a certain part of a certain road at dawn and photograph a certain vehicle. Little does he suspect that this seemingly inconsequential task will escalate into a case that will lead him to risk his job, and his life. The (pseudonymous) author, a veteran intelligence officer, has intimate knowledge of Asian life and politics, and it shows: he gives the North Korea setting a feeling of palpable reality, depicting the nature of daily life under a totalitarian government not just with broad sociopolitical descriptions but also with specific everyday details. Inspector O is completely believable and sympathetic, a working cop who isn't entirely sure he believes in the things his government tells him to believe in. Comparisons to J. Robert Janes' series set in occupied France and costarring Gestapo detective Kohler are inevitable, but there is also a little of Martin Cruz Smith's early Arkady Renko novels here. The writing is superb, too, well above the level usually associated with a first novel, richly layered and visually evocative. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
A.The story takes place in the shadowy, creepy environs of North Korea. Believe me, reading this book will give you the one and only chance to peer inside this starkly surreal society created by the evil genius of Kim Jung-il and his late father;
B.The search for the murderers of a foreigner at the Hotel Koryo in Pyongyang is a uniquely intriguing and complex exercise in unraveling many layers of bureaucracy within North Korea. At the end, the reader gets to truly see how unbelievably corrupt this regime has become over the years. Power is wielded at the highest levels throughout the country by actively encouraging people to exploit each other for personal gain;
C.The main character is effectively developed as a credible person who wants to finally amount to somebody with a conscience. Inspector O starts out as a servile operative who does only as ordered, until he realizes how vulnerable he is himself within the web of pervading evil;
D.The story provides a picture of the spiritual and economic poverty that engulfs the entire country of North Korea. The only standard of virtue is doing bad to one's neighbours before they get to do it to you;
E.It does not do the typical murder mystery novel of tying up any loose ends. The perplexing issues and the big questions are still there at the end. What the book may achieve is a general unsettling effect of challenging the reader to imagine what a lawless society might look like if many or all of our social and political institutions broke down.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Inspector O is an endearing character, with a mix of necessary pragmatism and romanticism, as well as authentic complexity.
It's not just the milieu (North Korea) that appeals--though that certainly does, taking the reader to a place few know at all. More, it's the writing--a beautifully honed minimalism that nonetheless evokes its scenes with great detail. I love it when writers are able to leave room for the reader's imagination. It takes talent to know where to leave those spaces, and James Church has plenty of such talent.
If you like fine writing, eye-opening characters and locales, and a quiet but purposeful intelligence wrapped inside a thrilling story, get ready to go to Church.
What's not so hot is the mystery itself. Like other reviewers here, I just didn't get it, to put it plainly. There are these interspersed chapters where the protagonist - Inspector O - is being debriefed by an Russian-speaking Irishman. After almost 300 pages, I'm still trying to figure out why these sessions were taking place. It added nothing to the book. Take those chapters out, the book reads exactly the same. Even after the denouement, I was still left scratching my head trying to figure out exactly what the mystery was, how it was resolved, and frankly, why I cared. For such a well-researched and well-crafted book, the core mystery at its center could have been presented better. Still, 'Koryo' a very good read.
The tale Inspector O tells is of how, after a routine stakeout operation, he is gets pushed all over the map by his direct superior and the mysterious intelligence operative named "Kang." It's all very unclear, since no one tells the inspector anything beyond "go there, wait here, etc." and the reader is simply tagging along from point A to point B in equal bewilderment. Fortunately the inspector is an appealing figure -- the grandson of a war hero, he's filled with a sardonic, but not overly rebellious, attitude toward those in power. It would have been easy to make him a cardboard closeted reformer, but the author wisely avoids that route, instead making him a somewhat romantic soul, resigned to a hard life and seeking solace and life in small chunks of wood. There's also a wry subplot, which I'm sure is a homage to a classic pulp story (just can't recall which one), about his inability to score a cup of tea throughout the whole book.
Eventually it becomes clear that the factional maneuvering which is the cause of Inspector O's being moved all over the place has something to do on one level with a scheme to smuggle cars from South Korea to China, and on another level, with diplomatic moves to "right old wrongs" between North Korea and Japan. (Potential readers will find it especially useful to learn about North Korea's kidnapping of Japanese citizens in the late '70s and early '80s before starting the book.) However by the time the book sputters to the end, many will have lost interest in the subtlties of all this and said "Forget it Inspector O, it's Pyongyang." The North Korean setting is reasonably interesting, and Inspector O is reasonably engaging, but the plotting and pace of the book leave a great deal to be desired.
Note: Those interested in fiction from North Korea should check out the recent anthology "Literature from the Axis of Evil and Other Enemy Nations" and the September 2003 edition of Words Without Borders.
It is in this unusual setting that Church layers an unsettling mystery that sinks the reader deeper into intrigue and complexity with each passing chapter. The wily Inspector "O" is sent out one early summer money with a strange but simple assignment: watch the main road from the south leading to North Korean capital Pyongyang, and photograph "a car". While Dirty Harry wouldn't put up with such obscure orders without a complete explanation, this is, after all, North Korea, the tyrannical playground of deceased mad man Kim Il-sung and his dangerously wacko son Kim Jong-il. It is a country of hope long burned out and forgotten inspiration. A country so poor that, in a darkly humorous subplot, "O" spends seeks fruitlessly for an elusive cup of tea. While is the familiar American crime novels of New York, LA, or Chicago political corruption and questionable motives might run as undercurrent, in Church's North Korea, the graft and turpitude is blatant and acknowledged. One wonders why even bother with a police department, as party members and government officials seems to move and act with absolute impunity. But back to the story, the corpse of an identified westerner turns up in a room of the Hotel Koryo, an enclave for foreigners and their ever-present Korean spies in downtown Pyongyang. "O" soon finds out that the murder is the least of his worries, as people close to him are turning up dead and he fins himself in the middle of high-powered scheming where few are who they seem and no one can be trusted.
In short, a brilliant debut, but one word of warning: anyone with fantasies of idyllic Communistic worker paradises risk having their illusions shattered by Church's jagged-edged expose of a nightmare only Karl Marx could appreciate. For the rest of us, a refreshing if sobering mystery on uncommon quality.
A Corpse in the Koryo has its good points. Inspector O is a likable, three-dimensional character: He inevitably fails to wear his pin of the Great Leader, which counts as rebellion in North Korea. He detests his brother for reasons that aren't revealed in this first installment. Most endearingly, O, the grandson of a carpenter (and hero of the revolution), is preoccupied with wood. He calms his nerves and intimidates suspects by rubbing pieces of wood in his fingers until they assume the shape and smoothness nature intended. Among his prized possessions is a small collection of sandpaper--which, because it's an American product, has to be hidden from the authorities lest it be confiscated.
Church's writing is also poetic in parts, Inspector O being unusually thoughtful and attentive to the natural world. Finally, the fact that the novel is set in North Korea makes it an inherently interesting piece of fiction. The book is suffused with a sense of paranoia and deprivation, but I didn't feel as immersed in that alien culture while reading as I had expected.
The problem with A Corpse in the Koryo is that the book is so slow that reading it feels interminable. It's also very hard to understand what's going on because everything is hinted at rather than spelled out. Eventually, despite good writing and enigmatic characters, trying to figure out the book's plot doesn't seem worth the effort.
-- Debra Hamel