From the Publisher
“Church once again does a brilliant job of portraying the dysfunctional, paranoid society of modern North Korea in his third novel to feature Inspector O....While the espionage elements compel, the book's main strength, as with its predecessors, derives from the small details that enable the reader to imagine life in North Korea--and from O's struggles to maintain his principles and integrity.” Publishers Weekly (starred review) on the Inspector O Series
“[Hidden Moon] . . . is like nothing else I've ever read. . . . Church creates an utterly convincing, internally consistent world of the absurd where orders mean the opposite of what they say and paperwork routinely gets routed to oblivion.” Halle Ephron, The Boston Globe on Hidden Moon
“The book's often sharp repartee is reminiscent of Raymond Chandler's dialogue, while the corrupt North Korean bureaucracy provides an exotic but entirely convincing noir backdrop. . . . Like Marlowe and Spade before him, Inspector O navigates the shadows and, every now and then, finds truth in the half-light.” Marina Malenic, The Wall Street Journal on Hidden Moon
“Church uses his years of intelligence work to excellent advantage here, delivering one duplicitous plot twist after another. . . . The author's affection for the landscape and people of Korea is abundantly evident. . . . A stunning conclusion.” The Washington Post on Hidden Moon
“Hidden Moon reads more like a spy novel by a Korean Kafka. Final word: fascinating.” Rocky Mountain News on Hidden Moon
“Church's spartan prose is a perfect match for the sparseness of the North Korean landscape.” Charleston Gazette on Hidden Moon
“The real pleasure of Hidden Moon is its conversations, loaded down with layers of secrecy and suspicion that surface words are meaningless in the face of buried intention.” The Baltimore Sun on Hidden Moon
“A crackling good mystery novel, filled with unusual characters involved in a complex plot that keeps you guessing to the end.” The Washington Post on A Corpse in the Koryo
“An impressive debut that calls to mind such mystery thrillers as Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park.” Publishers Weekly (starred review) on A Corpse in the Koryo
“A new offering that reminds you of why you started reading mysteries and thrillers in the first place.” The Chicago Tribune on A Corpse in the Koryo
“Impressive . . . the author has crafted a complex character with rough charm to spare, and in eternally static North Korea, he has a setting that will fascinate readers for sequels to come.” Tim Morrison, Time magazine, Asia edition on A Corpse in the Koryo
Church once again does a brilliant job of portraying the dysfunctional, paranoid society of modern North Korea in his third novel to feature Inspector O of the ministry of public security (after 2007's Hidden Moon). When a foreigner O has been assigned to watch turns out to be working for Israeli intelligence, O and his supervisor, Pak, come under the scrutiny of a rival security service. To complicate matters, Pak asks the inspector to investigate the murder of a North Korean diplomat's wife in Pakistan, but O is restricted to merely collecting facts about the dead woman. O's efforts to actually solve the crime lead to dangerous encounters with his country's special weapons program. While the espionage elements compel, the book's main strength, as with its predecessors, derives from the small details that enable the reader to imagine life in North Korea-and from O's struggles to maintain his principles and integrity. (Dec.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In 1997, while the people of North Korea wait to see if the new dictator will be able to step into his father's shoes, Inspector O (A Corpse in the Koryo; Hidden Moon) has been told to write a report on a murdered woman but has received no information on where her death took place or how she was killed. He also has been selected to protect a mysterious man who may or may not be an Israeli but continues to get permission to visit North Korea. Gifted storyteller Church, who obviously has a vast insider's knowledge of this mysterious country, leads the reader and Inspector O on a complex trail of misdirection and treachery. A third triumph for Church. [Library marketing; see Prepub Mystery, LJ8/08.]
Jo Ann Vicarel
The murder of a diplomat's wife brings a different kind of pressure on a dogged young police inspector.
In the middle of a blizzard in the winter of 1997, North Korean Inspector O and his nervous supervisor, Chief Inspector Pak, bring in for questioning a suspicious foreigner whose playful answers indicate a lack of concern and whose explanation of his nationality—his passport says he's Swiss—keeps changing. Newly appointed to the Ministry of Public Security, O presents his story in a narrative that bristles with iconoclasm and intellectual curiosity. When O and Pak let the man go after questioning, they're scolded by two visiting Public security operatives. A short time later, one of the pair dies in a horrible car accident, and Pak wonders if there are other forces at work. But the arrival of a huge, unusual and confusing case abruptly consumes them. They're ordered to gather information on the death of a North Korean general's daughter. The only clue is her telephone request to her father for a music book he can no longer find. The daughter, a diplomat's wife, was in Pakistan when she died, and murder is suspected. Amazingly, the trail leads through both the droll foreigner and the victim of that car accident.
Former intelligence officer Church's third Inspector O mystery, set a decade before the first two (Hidden Moon, 2007, etc.), finds the inspector no less acerbic and the author no more straightforward. This one's by turns dazzling and boring, frustrating and insightful.
Agent: Bob Mecoy/Creative Book Services
Read an Excerpt
Bamboo and Blood
By James Church
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 James Church
All rights reserved.
The muffled whiteness fell in thick flakes, a final quickening before winter settled into the cold, hard rut of death. Halfway up the slope, pine trees shifted under their new mantle. A few sighed. The rest braced without protest. In weather like this, tracks might last an hour; less if the wind picked up. If a man wanted to walk up the mountain and disappear, I told myself, this might be his best chance.
"Fix these lenses, will you, Inspector? They've iced up again. Where are the lens caps? Every damn time, same thing — the caps vanish."
I brushed the snow from my coat and glanced back. Chief Inspector Pak was scrambling up the path, the earflaps on his hat bowed out, chin snaps dangling loose. No matter what, the man would not fasten those snaps. They irritated him, he said; they cut into his skin. Unfastened, they also irritated him. Gloves irritated him. Scarves irritated him. Winter was not a good time to be around Pak, not outside, anyway.
The binoculars hung from his neck by a cracked leather strap already stiff with cold. Twenty years old, maybe thirty, East German made, and not very good because the Germans never sold us anything they wanted for themselves. The focus wheel stuck, even worse in cold weather, so objects jerked into view and then out again. We had bought ourselves two choices: blurred or blurred beyond recognition. Cleaning the snow from the lenses would make no difference.
"Here." As soon as he caught up, Pak thrust the binoculars at me. "Can't see a damned thing." He fiddled with the snaps on his chin strap. "I don't like snaps, did you know that? Never have. Too damned difficult to undo in the cold, especially when you're wearing these damned gloves. If you have to take off your gloves to work the snaps, what have you gained? Who invents these things? Does anybody think anymore? Does your scarf itch? Mine is driving me crazy. Do something with these lenses, would you?"
I felt around in my pockets for something to use. There was nothing but a few sandpaper scraps and two wood screws, one a little longer than the other. They both had round heads, with slots that didn't fit any screwdriver I could ever locate. Not useful, I thought to myself. So why had they been in my pockets for years, transferred from one coat to another? The coats would each be discarded over time, but the contents of the pockets were impossible to throw away. "Simply because you don't need something at the moment," my grandfather would mutter when he found whatever I'd put in the trash pile, "doesn't mean it's worthless." I could hear his voice. "Look ahead," he'd say as he carefully examined the discarded object before handing it back to me. "Don't forget — bamboo scraps and wood shavings. Even two thousand years ago some damned Chinese carpenter knew enough to save them. When the kingdom ran out of everything else, he used the bamboo scraps to make nails. Got him in good with the Emperor. Do you suppose you're smarter than he was, do you imagine the present is all you'll ever have?" I never knew what to say to that.
Maybe that was why so many things ended up in my pockets — a subconscious bid not to run afoul of my grandfather, but also a bid for an unknown future, a sort of materialistic optimism. Maybe even Marxist in a way, a pocket theory of labor. After all, somebody made those two useless screws, though they were metal, not bamboo.
"Inspector." Many animals hibernate in cold weather; I drift intophilosophy. "Inspector!" Pak pointed impatiently at the binoculars I was holding. My thoughts drifted back to the lenses. With what was I supposed to clean them? There was nothing I could use in my pockets. Did I have dried grass in my boots? Was I expected to use my hair, like one of the heroines in a guerrilla band of old, scouting for signs of the Imperial Japanese Army in the icy forests of Manchuria? I stamped my feet to restore a little feeling. The real question was, what were we doing here, hours from anywhere, squinting up at a mountain of frozen rock and groaning trees, our ears burning as the temperature plummeted? Mine were burning. Pak's earflaps were loose, but at least they were down.
"Never. Mind." Pak was right beside me, yelling to be heard over the wind that suddenly swept down the slope. The first blast tore his words apart. A second blast hit just as he tried again. To keep my balance, I turned sideways, which may be why I could hear the wind and nothing else. I thought my right ear might be ripped off in the gale, but not before it froze solid. I imagined an ice cube with my ear inside skittering along the ground, bouncing against trees and rocks, until at last it came to rest at the foot of the mountain. It might be deemed a new listening post of substantial value. "Good work, Inspector," someone in the Ministry would say months hence, after all the paperwork on my commendation was complete, but I would only hear ice melting off the rocks, since my ear would not be in range of commendations.
"No, I'll do it. I'll do it," I said to Pak when the wind died down for a moment and I could feel that my ear was still attached. I brushed more snow off my coat and tried to use the sleeve to clear the lenses. "But we might as well quit. Really, being out here is not healthy." Then the wind started again, furious at something, howling, smashing any words that dared emerge. The last thing in the world we needed was to climb a mountain in this weather. We weren't dressed for it, not through lack of foresight on our part. The Ministry just didn't issue anything fit for climbing mountains in the middle of a blizzard. "The only thing we're going to find is frostbite," I said. The lenses were still frosted over, though at least now they were glistening.
Pak hunched his shoulders. "Relax, Inspector. Don't get in a sweat, or you'll get frostbite for sure." He reached for the binoculars. "You know, your ears don't look normal, especially the right one. Funny color for flesh." He cocked his head. "Are you alright? Pull down those flaps, why don't you?" He tugged down his own and pointed to his ears. "That's why they put them on these hats. Costs us extra, you know. Might as well use them, snaps or not."
To hell with earflaps, I thought and put my hands back in my pockets. To hell with standing in the cold. "This is ugly weather." I was shouting at the top of my lungs, but from the look on his face, I didn't think Pak could hear me. "We can't even see our boots in this wind!" It surprised me that I could still form words; my cheeks were numb, and the feeling had practically drained from my lips. "We'll be stuck in that miserable hut back there for days." I jerked my head in the direction of the peaks, made nearly invisible by the snow, unless the wind had become so strong it was actually blowing apart the light. "He'll freeze to death up there." I didn't point because I didn't want to take my hands from my pockets again. "We'll be lucky to find him next May." Pak gave me a blank stare. I shouted louder. "If he's down here in the next few minutes, we'll invite him to dine. I'll warm my ears in the soup." The wind shrieked and knocked me sideways a step.
Pak shook his head. "What? I can't hear you with these flaps down."
A figure emerged out of the driving snow, and the three of us were blown back to the hut. Even in the midst of a blizzard, the foreigner's face held an easy smile, a sense of subtle mischief on his lips. There was something about him that made you think he was far away in his own mind, that he wasn't buffeted by the same concerns and worries as everyone else. Halfway through the most serious conversation, he might erupt in rich laughter, throwing you off stride. "Sorry," he would say. "Something struck me as funny."
His forehead was almost hidden by a lock of black hair; combed back with his fingers, it always fell down again a moment later. The lines on his face creased when he listened, or pretended to listen. The effect was nothing dramatic, but enough to suggest he was paying attention, concentrating on your words even though he was already four moves ahead of where you imagined you were leading him. At odd moments, seemingly out of sync with anything else, his eyebrows arched and danced, sometimes to show pleasure, sometimes not. Just as he slipped into an ironic observation, one eyebrow would leap straight up. A moment later, his mouth would tighten, a bit, not much. He would puff out his cheeks and look down, as if he regretted his words, or at least their tone. That impressed me probably most of all. He paid attention to delivery; there was never anything unguarded in what he said or, more important, how he said it.
When he felt anxious, which was rare, his right hand held the fingers of the left, a source of comfort, perhaps, or an unconscious effort to hide them from harm, maybe a habit from difficult times. After watching him for a few days, I realized that when he paused to think, he always lined up his hands against each other, one finger at a time, meticulously, deliberately. Once everything was perfectly aligned, five fingertips against their twins, it meant he had decided what he wanted to say. Then he put his hands down on the table again, where they lay still, completely comfortable and at ease.
"I thought I was going to die up there." The foreigner spoke English with a slight accent. Even after two weeks accompanying him several hours a day, I hadn't been able to place the source. I had heard all sorts of accents before, but none like this. It nagged at me, not being able to place him. His documents said he was from Switzerland. Maybe, but somehow I doubted that was the whole story.
From the beginning, as we stood around waiting for his bags at the airport, he spoke in a soothing cadence, a voice so smooth I wondered if he swallowed a bit of silk every morning — silk pills, maybe. Without fail, he turned complex thoughts into short, simple sentences so I could translate for Pak. That alone told me he had done this many times before. It was not the mark of a tourist, or even a businessman. Western businessmen sometimes spoke slowly, like we were idiots, but there was always an aura of tension around them, a slight odor of calculation. They couldn't help themselves. Not this visitor. He stood casually in the immigration line, he shook our hands casually when we introduced ourselves, but this was not a casual visit. In the dreary, dangerous winter of 1997, he had been put in our care, under the protection of the Ministry of Public Security. This was inexplicable, at least to me. We didn't babysit foreigners, we followed them at a discreet distance. If Pak knew anything, as usual he wasn't saying.
"The wind never let up." The foreigner took off his scarf. "From down below maybe you couldn't tell. The trees lower down didn't move much from what I could see, but the wind near the top was like a knife." He laughed. "That's a cliché, isn't it? I'm sorry. But it cut through my coat, cut through my gloves. You people may be used to this weather. I'm not."
A worse place to hold a conversation, I thought, would have been hard to find. The hut was small, cold, and dark. The only light came from what little remained of a slate gray day seeping through a tiny window on the far wall. The three of us stood bunched together in one corner, squeezed by a square wooden table with one chair. Normally, I would have looked to see what sort of wood the table was. I was too cold to care.
Who would have put furniture in a room so tiny? There was a piece missing from the side of the table, the side closest the window, as if something had stuck its head in and taken out a bite. Not a rough cut but a clean, symmetrical bite. I looked again at the wood. It was only pine, and not very good pine, either. I was going to freeze to death under a lousy, sappy pine table. I looked more closely. Maybe it had been gnawed, though the light was fading so fast I couldn't tell for sure. Who ate tables? I thought back to woodworking tools my grandfather had used — cutting tools, chisels, planes. Every night, they were lined up on the wall of his workshop. It was a pleasant, peaceful place, cool in the summer, fragrant with resin that seeped from the pieces of newly cut wood. "You have to keep things neat," he'd say as he finished putting everything in its place. "Life may not be like that, not for humans, anyway. You'll find that out someday, to your sorrow. But there is order everywhere else around us. You'll never come across a disorderly forest, and I'm not talking about trees standing in rows and saluting, either." He'd point to the tools. "Put them back where they belong," he'd say. "Let them get a rest, refresh their spirit." Once the implements were in place, he'd brush the sawdust into a pile and put it in a barrel that sat in the corner. "People don't treat things right anymore," he'd say, "don't ask me why."
The foreigner's voice brought me back to the hut. "Why are we standing?" I'd never heard someone sound so friendly even though he was shouting. We had to get out of this place. Everything about it was wrong. We had no psychological edge in here for making this man explain — without games or irony or coatings of vocal friendship — what the hell he had been doing on the mountain in this weather. Trying to start any sort of a serious interrogation, even a short one, was impossible. We might as well be on a minibus in a gale. I had the feeling the foreigner thought he could leave anytime he wanted, just get off at the next stop and disappear into the swirling darkness. There wasn't even any way to lock the door. It barely shut, and the wind made it rattle and shake the whole time he spoke. "Why are we standing around? There's nowhere to go for the moment," he said. It was his way of making sure we knew the score was even — we were trapped just like he was, all equally uncomfortable, and nothing would change that. He looked at us and smiled faintly. It might be two against one, but minus ten centigrade was a good leveler of odds and he knew it. When neither Pak nor I moved, he squeezed himself into the chair. I watched him put his fingers together. He had something more to say.
"Presumably, you'll kick me out of the country. Just as well, you'll hear no complaints from me. To tell the truth, I'm anxious to get back to where it is warm, maybe stretch out on a beach and have suntan oil rubbed onto my chest by someone." He held my eye for a moment and smiled as the wind tore at the roof. Then he turned to Pak. "Someone wearing a bikini."
Pak moved from one foot to the other. The floor was radiating cold up through the soles of our boots so that my shinbones were starting to ache. "If it were up to me," Pak said, "you'd be on a plane right away. Even better, you'd have been gone yesterday. But that won't happen. So your beach will have to wait. You'll need something warmer than a bikini back in Pyongyang, because they say it's going to be a cold winter. There will be lots of questions, and they won't be politely asked, not like the inspector here does. Questions every day, all day, morning, noon, and night. Sun? Even in the unlikely event there are windows in the room you'll get, you won't see much sun." Pak took off his hat and fiddled with the snap for a moment. I knew he was figuring out exactly how to phrase what he wanted to say next. "You were supposed to stay close. That was the agreement. You stay with us; we keep you safe. That's how it was going to work. An hour here or there out of touch we could explain if we had to. But this time you went too far, disappearing all day long. They'll be waiting when we get back, believe me, and there's nothing I can do about it."
The left hand moved for its shelter. The foreigner shrugged again but offered nothing.
"Don't be a wise guy," I said. "You say you're from Switzerland. That's nowhere near the Mediterranean, so why don't we drop this image of suntan oil and bikinis?"
"Ah, very good, Inspector." He threw back his head and laughed. "As always, perceptive and to the point. You're right, I was born in Lausanne, but I'm still a Jew." He paused, calculating the moment of maximum impact. His eyebrows wriggled, just enough to be noticed. "Genetic heritage, sunshine in my bones, a thousand generations in the desert. Can't deny our genes, can we? What do yours tell you?"
"They're off duty." I glanced at Pak. He hadn't changed expression, but I had no doubt he was digging himself out from the wreckage. A Swiss Jew? A Jew of any sort roaming around Pyongyang? Not just roaming around, but under the protection and observation of the Ministry — our little unit of the Ministry, to be precise, and there was no reason to doubt the precision that would ensue. Maddeningly sarcastic questions, sharpened to a fine and precise point, recorded in painful detail, asked again and again. Fingers would point, and I knew where.
Pak was still chewing things over. I could see his jaws working. The prolonged silence only intensified the cold.
Excerpted from Bamboo and Blood by James Church. Copyright © 2008 James Church. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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