The setting is somewhat counterintuitive for a meeting with the shadowy author who calls himself James Church—a sunlit plaza near the Brooklyn Bridge, midday, the copies of galleys clutched under arms as identifying signals and a publicist from St. Martin's Press filling the role of minder. Church, whose third mystery set in North Korea, Bamboo and Blood, featuring the enjoyably complex Inspector O, is described on his books' dust jackets as a “former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia.” Church won't actually confirm that status in person, but the details he will divulge make clear his credentials concerning the least-known member of the “Axis of Evil.”
In the Inspector O novels, Church uses the conventions of detective fiction as a window into a notoriously closed society. In A Corpse in the Koryo (2006), a botched routine surveillance assignment, combined with a sensitive probe into a foreigner's murder, places the inspector in personal and professional jeopardy. Hidden Moon (2007) starts with a bank robbery, a virtually unprecedented crime in modern North Korea, and includes a political assassination conspiracy. Bamboo and Blood, coming out this December, from St. Martin's Minotaur, mixes the country's tightly guarded nuclear secrets with a murder mystery.
Church began creating one of the most intriguing and unusual mystery series of recent years when sometime in the first half of this decade (he won't be more specific), after getting off a long flight to Asia and having devoured a stack of mysteries, he wondered whether anyone had written one set in North Korea. And so, the idea was planted for A Corpse in the Koryo, which added the character of Inspector O to the ranks of police officers who struggle to maintain their personal integrity while in the employ of a repressive police state.
Critical reception for the series has been enthusiastic, including this assessment of the first book from Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development: “The best unclassified account of how North Korea works and why it has survived.” Such praise led Church's editor at St. Martin's, Pete Wolverton, to begin negotiations for “more, the moment the pre-publication reviews began to roll in.”
Church started working in North Korea (in an unspecified capacity) when the current leader of the country, Kim Jung Il, was a very young man. At the time, most of the information Americans had about Korea came from watching the classic TV series M*A*S*H. The paucity of solid intelligence forced Church into an intensive learning process over the years that informed his commitment to portray the people of North Korea accurately in his novels. Not many people are aware, Church says, that in the late 1970s North Korea was more economically advanced than South Korea and was envied by China. “It's very easy to be intellectually lazy about North Korea,” Church says. Because so little reliable information about the country is available, that “lends itself to sloppy thinking and stereotypes. People like to say, based on what they observe on the street, that in North Korea people are afraid to talk to each other, but how much does that really differ from what you'd see walking around Manhattan?”
Church has worked hard to have his plots reflect the uncertain and tenuous nature of everyday life under the current regime, and the book's ambiguities are intentional. Some of his critics have expressed disappointment that by book's end not all the story lines are neatly resolved, a concern his editor had shared as well. In response, Church notes, “Uncertainty about the future, about the present, and even about the past is the norm for anyone living in North Korea. Tying up loose ends is laughable in a place where 'reality' is constantly dissolving into fog and shadows.”
|Leonard Picker, a freelance reviewer for PW, also writes the Screen of the Crime column for Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.|