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“Major Kim had extraordinary authority, he was from the South, and Pyongyang had the indefinable feel of a tiny planet beginning to wobble on its axis.  There were more babies, more children being pushed in strollers, more couples walking together…Even the cranes at the construction sites had changed, the old stubby dinosaurs replaced by long, graceful booms.”

Author James Church takes his series of mysteries set in North Korea in new directions with this surprising fourth novel.  Church, a former intelligence officer with the U.S. government, has spent much time in Asia, and presumably North Korea, and he makes a foray here into speculative fiction–not speculating on life in North Korea in the far distant future, but in the very immediate future.  When this novel opens, it is 2016, and Inspector O, the iconoclastic officer who has been the fascinating main character of the three previous novels, has been happily retired from action and living in blessed isolation on a mountain top, working with his precious woods.  Suddenly, he is visited by officers he cannot refuse to accompany and is brought back to Pyongyang.  He is needed for a special assignment.

This is his first trip to the city in five years, and O is in for some big surprises.  Church uses a great deal of (rare) tongue-in-cheek humor and irony here to show how much the city has changed since O’s retirement, showing it through O’s eyes.  The busboy who takes him to his room expects a tip; a woman enters his room in the early evening for “turndown service,” something he does not understand, and on departure wishes him a “good evening and pleasant dreams.”  The waiter at a restaurant is named “Michael.”  O’s mystified reaction is “I don’t get the feeling this is normal.”

In fact, O is in Pyongyang to work with, and take orders from, Major Kim from South Korea, who is operating in North Korea to bring about some kind of co-operation between the countries.  As confused as O is, however, so, too, is the reader, who learns along with O what circumstances have brought about such momentous changes.  “I am here to deliver you into freedom,” says Kim, “and that is exactly what I am going to do.”  The disbelieving and intransigent O is finally locked into a room to examine some files so that he may understand exactly what Kim means when he says, “I am the party center.”

O’s first assignment is to go to Macau to investigate the murder of a woman in the famed Grand Lisboa Hotel.  The “killer” has been apprehended, but it is essential to the future of North Korea that this man not be the killer. O’s assignment is to wipe out any tracks that might connect this man to the crime.

The plot becomes complicated as the author reveals through O’s activities that North Korea has now become so weakened that the Chinese plan to move into North Korea to prevent further collapse.  The South Koreans are committed to preventing that from happening. At the same time, the Japanese are on the east coast of the country, waiting to make their move, and the Russians are in the northeast.  Some of the old guard in North Korea want to maintain old ways and are willing to fight to ensure that.  With all the machinations at the highest levels, and all the determination of security services and military to ensure that the country survives and is able to solve its economic issues, more personal machinations involve some of the people with whom O has had previous relationships, some of them living in hiding or exile.  Murders occur to complicate all the negotiations.

As in all the other novels in this series, O is not always sure about what is going on, and his very ignorance and confusion, as seemingly unrelated actions take place, parallel those of the reader.  Church uses O’s ignorance throughout the series, in fact, to show how little most of us know about North Korea, a monolithic government shrouded in secrecy.  With so many other powerful countries also wanting a piece of the North Korean pie, this novel is particularly complicated, but as O becomes more human than he has ever been in the past, he is a more sympathetic character, more able to keep the reader interested and committed to knowing the outcome.

As someone who has read the previous novels in the series, I found this novel fascinating and totally involving, however complex and confusing some of the plot became.  I am not sure how someone who has not read any of the previous novels will respond to this one.  Suffice it to say that throughout the series Church depicts North Korea as he has seen it, and Inspector O, or “former Inspector O,” as he is here, however intelligent, is not high enough in the hierarchy to have any sense of the big picture.  For readers who are willing to set aside the norms of mystery writing that have a beginning, middle, and end and are willing to accept the uncertainties that are required by the novels of James Church, this novel starring Inspector O is one of the most interesting and unusual mysteries in the genre today.


Photos: The photo of the author is the only photo available for the writer known as James Church:  http://us.macmillan.com/author/jameschurch

The Grand Lisboa Hotel photo is from the Wiki page.

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