by James Church
I forget exactly how I stumbled across Inspector O but it was while searching for something else entirely. A mystery set in North Korea was intriguing enough, but a North Korean police detective protagonist was altogether too interesting to resist.
O is a detective in the Ministry of People's Security. He's loyal but apolitical, proudly North Korean but as indifferent to the cult of the Dear Leader as he is to Communist dogma. Too conscientious for his own good, his inability to look the other way inevitably leads O into the Byzantine depths of the North Korean security apparatus: "I knew, knew absolutely, that somebody didn't want the case solved. . . . Until Min actually ordered me off, formally, I had to keep following footprints leading nowhere. At least I had to hope they led nowhere. If by accident I stumbled on a real clue, it would be nothing but trouble." Of course, O always runs smack into the clue he doesn't want to find and it sends him tumbling headlong into a pressure cooker of international intrigue and domestic chicanery.
Curiosity and independence are by no means assets for a North Korean security officer, and O takes more beatings than Sam Spade and Jim Rockford combined. There's a strong noir flavor to O's world, and the erudite inspector some times sounds suspiciously like a hardboiled American detective—especially when a femme fatale enters the fray: "She walked over to me, on high heels that accentuated her height. She was tall and slender, maybe younger than I first thought. . . . There was nothing wispy or slender about her manner. She was rude like a hammer before it comes down on a nail." Anyone else hear Bogart and picture Bacall there?
The Inspector O novels are no pastiches or cheesy mash-ups, though. James Church (not his real name) is a Californian, a former intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia and special expertise in Korean matters. He claims to have created the character O as a way to explore how someone smart, capable and skeptical might choose not to escape his homeland's grinding hardships but rather to remain steadfastly loyal to a system he never had faith in. It's this—O's stubborn, Hemingway-esque refusal to live life on anyone's terms but his own—that makes O such a compelling character. Having made O's acquaintance, North Korea will never look quite the same to you.
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Review by Don Beistle