North Korea, as portrayed in James Church’s gripping novel, A Corpse in the Koryo, is not just a place. It’s also a Kafkaesque nightmare of rigid conformity, alternate histories, and lots of things way above Inspector O’s pay grade. This first novel in the series set up not just Inspector O’s jurisdiction—the hotels, restaurants, and other commercial operations in Pyongyang—but his character. O is an unconventional detective in probably the worst place to be an unconventional detective. He doesn’t wear his pin with the Leader’s portrait. He has a habit of polishing wood that seems to drive everyone nuts. Worst of all, he keeps asking inconvenient questions when he’s repeatedly told to stick to his patch. All of this makes for a great read, with a great character, in a fascinating setting.
We meet Inspector O in the middle of what seems to be a bureaucratic tangle of the right hand not knowing what the left is up to. He’s been tasked with taking a picture of a car from a certain hill, at a certain time. But the camera batteries are dead and O gets the impression that the driver of the car knows he’s there. This strange incident, paired with scenes obviously set later as O is being debriefed by an agent of British intelligence, tell us that O is operating in deep waters. If we needed any more clues that O had been caught up in someone else’s schemes, his supervisor (and friend) sends him away from the city to a border town. The spy shenanigans kick into high gear, with O (and us) none the wiser about what the hell is going on.
Because this is North Korea, nothing goes the way we might expect. There are bodies at the beginning of the novel, but O isn’t put in charge of an actual murder case until partway through the book. When O’s murder victim does turn up, a man who’s possibly Finnish in a hotel set up for foreign visitors in Pyongyang, he’s almost completely hand-cuffed by people who don’t want him to ask too many questions. Nothing is as it seems in the case, as O slowly starts to piece together clues and conspiracies.
A Corpse in the Koryo had me completely hooked even before the bullets started flying. The mystery had me engagingly puzzled, but I absolutely loved the moments when O reflects on his Revolutionary hero grandfather. This grandfather taught him how to create beautiful things from wood—and how to keep his private thoughts to himself, his doubts, to himself and navigate the place that their country had become. It’s hard to say whether or not O believes in the Revolution as he encounters scam artists, hypocrites, true believers, and fellow travelers. All I can say is that O is still loyal to his country, as strange and dangerous as it is. This is truly a fascinating book.