Unless we are talking about the deadly poison attack on Kim Jong-nam in a Malaysian airport, these days we rarely find North Korean special agents making headlines. In the present case, packed with its own surreal twists, two of the attackers (one a Vietnamese woman and the other, an Indonesian woman) had initially told investigators that they were duped by someone to believe that they were on reality TV. Truth, if news reports and the suspects’ accounts are to be taken at face value, is indeed stranger than fiction.

The shadowy world of North Korean operatives, their handlers, their investigators and law-keepers get seldom portrayed in stories written about that country. However, because of a peculiar blend of secretiveness and a climate of fear, obscure power networks, whispers of Cold War style intrigue and the harsh contours of ordinary lives, this reclusive nation could have easily been the setting for nuanced crime writing.

Barring a clutch of South Korean thriller movies, the odd memoir – The Tears Of My Soul by Kim Hyun-hee, the agent who planted a bomb on a Korean Air flight 858 – or some outrageously inventive story (like the one quoted by North Korea expert Andrei Lankov) of a North Korean operative saving a flight from a CIA bombing plot, there is hardly anything written that conjures up the murky world of intrigue and skullduggery typical to this genre. Unless of course, one has discovered James Church and his Inspector O novels.

North Koreans are human too

A Corpse in the Koryo, the first in a series of half a dozen police procedurals from this author, who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity, is a gripping mystery plotted around the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean operatives. Just as he does brilliantly in several other departments of storytelling, Church is a master of dialogue peppered with wit:

“’Now you’re mad at me. Why do Koreans get angry so quickly?’

‘We don’t. We just don’t hide our feelings.’ I closed my eyes. ‘You may not always know what a Korean thinks, but you damn well know what he feels. If anything, we are melancholy more than angry. Listen to our songs. Always longing for something.’

‘The Russians are like that. Melancholy.’

‘Any country that produced Stalin has reason to be melancholy.’”

And so the verbal sparring continues between Inspector O, who is a North Korean police officer, and the ravishing Elena, a Sino-Finnish woman in a ramshackle hotel in the outlaw town of Manpo, where death roams the streets, sometimes with Chinese radio scanners in hand.

But it is the undertow of melancholy and a fascinating portrayal of the stoicism of the North Korean people that singles out the Inspector O novels by James Church from run-of-the-mill crime fiction.

The plot, befitting the classic hardboiled genre, is complex. Never a straight line, it branches through five-star hotel rooms of Pyongyang, twists up mountain ridges, cat-foots along dangerous back streets, nets a colourful cast of characters while connecting dots in the fabric of corruption, crime and power. The author, a retired western intelligence operative, acknowledged his debt to hardboiled fiction to The Independent, saying, “…One of my first thoughts was Raymond Chandler meets Kim Jong-il – it sounded like fun.”

Church’s familiarity with North Korea, which he has visited on numerous occasions, is stamped in the facility with which he etches the lives of commoners and the powerful alike, burning lasting pictures in the mind.

The inspector of his stories is a well rounded character with a passion for woodwork – a craft he picked up from his grandfather. While Inspector O tries to do his duties faithfully, he does have that streak of a rebel in him. He always forgets to wear the badge with the image of the Great Leader, a crime that could land him in serious trouble. But unlike others, he doesn’t think of leaving his country – “I’m not the type to defect”, he says.

Transcending genre

In this book, trouble starts for Inspector O when he is assigned on camera duty to watch a highway near Pyongyang for a fancy car. But his camera fails – its battery is dead. Soon he and his boss Pak will have to answer the authorities, who include Deputy Director Kang from the Investigations Department and Captain Kim of Military Security, whose eyes were “quick and sharp, like little paring knives”.

After a chat with Kang, during which Inspector O learns about two deaths on a highway, his boss suddenly sends him on a week’s leave to the town of Kanggye and then to the border outpost of Manpo, where he meets Elena under strange circumstances. But things get rough for him at Manpo and soon enough we have a dead Finn in a Pyongyang hotel (The Koryo) room.

It will be hard to tell who is friend and who is foe as the plot thickens and danger breaths down the inspector’s neck. It will be unfair to give out the details of this classic hardboiled plot, where powerful officers of security establishments play a cat and mouse game that involves international smuggling rings, espionage and blood money for crimes committed long ago.

In a gritty storyline where danger piles up over the chapters, it is the artful vignettes (about Inspector O’s wood carving grandfather among others) and asides about the lives of commoners – living with dignity despite shortages and strict controls – and the redeeming touch of humour that lift Church’s book above the limitations of genre. As Inspector O travels on a train to Kanggye, two railway policemen who have caught a young boy for a petty offence let him off with a warning:

“The taller of the policemen shouted, ‘And don’t let me catch you again, or I’ll shoot.’ He turned to his companion. ‘Or I would if I had any ammunition.’”

True to the rules of its genre, the violence when it comes is gory. Elena, caught in the crossfire of contesting interests, is murdered. This is how it happens to her:

“’She was still alive, but you couldn’t recognise her face. It was gone. It took her a few minutes to die.’ I took a deep breath. ‘It was like watching an animal.’”

But it is the humanity of Inspector O which lingers in our minds long after reading the book. Talking about his lifelong passion for woodwork, for which he has little time these days, the inspector says:

“’Persimmon is pretty wood. Has a nice glow. But it hides itself. Some wood tells you almost as soon as you touch it what it means to become. Not persimmon. It’s beautiful on the surface, almost unfathomable underneath.’”

Near the end of this novel, philosophising about the reality of North Korea and the impossibility of solving cases, Inspector O tells the Irish intelligence operative Richie:

“’…where I live, we don’t solve cases. What is a solution in a reality that never resolves into anything definable?’”

Spare, lyrical and enjoyable, this series of novels set in North Korea will enrich the collection of every crime aficionado. The well known North Korea expert, Peter Hayes, commenting about the Inspector O series has said it is, “the best unclassified account of how North Korea works and why it has survived all these years …”.

Scholars like Andrei Lankov and BR Myers, among others, have provided incisive if sometimes contrasting, analyses of life, politics and especially the ideological foundations of North Korea, with books which are rich in information. Church’s fictional accounts, on the other hand, give us a nuanced rendition – a strong sense of place blended with a valuable perspective about life, crime and power in North Korea, in a way only fiction can.