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A Corpse in the Koryo (Inspector O Series #1)
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A Corpse in the Koryo (Inspector O Series #1)

3.8 9
by James Church

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"On the surface, A Corpse in the Koryo is a crackling good mystery novel, filled with unusual characters involved in a complex plot that keeps you guessing to the end."
---Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post

One of Publishers Weekly Top 100 Books of 2006
One of Booklist's Best Genre Fiction of 2006
One of the


"On the surface, A Corpse in the Koryo is a crackling good mystery novel, filled with unusual characters involved in a complex plot that keeps you guessing to the end."
---Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post

One of Publishers Weekly Top 100 Books of 2006
One of Booklist's Best Genre Fiction of 2006
One of the Chicago Tribune's best mystery/thrillers of 2006

Sit on a quiet hillside at dawn among the wildflowers; take a picture of a car coming up a deserted highway from the south.
Simple orders for Inspector O, until he realizes they have led him far, far off his department's turf and into a maelstrom of betrayal and death. North Korea's leaders are desperate to hunt down and eliminate anyone who knows too much about a series of decade's-old kidnappings and murders---and Inspector O discovers too late he has been sent into the chaos. This is a world where nothing works as it should, where the crimes of the past haunt the present, and where even the shadows are real.
Author James Church weaves a story with beautifully spare prose and layered descriptions of a country and a people he knows by heart after decades as an intelligence officer.

". . . an outstanding crime novel. . . . a not-to-be-missed reading experience. "
---Library Journal (starred)

"Inspector O is completely believable and sympathetic . . . The writing is superb, too . . . richly layered and visually evocative."
---Booklist (starred)

". . . an impressive debut that calls to mind such mystery thrillers as Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park. . . ."
---Publishers Weekly (starred)

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This is a fine, intelligent, and exciting story that takes us into the netherworld of contemporary North Korean communism. It evokes the gray milieu without ever overstepping its mark, allowing us to see it from the inside rather than the outside, wherein the humanity of all the characters, both good and evil, is apparent. Inspector O is a particularly wonderful creation, a true mensch attempting to hold on to his humanity in a world where humanism is under constant attack. Subtlety is the method, and the result is fantastic work that should mark the beginning of a brilliant career for James Church.” —Olen Steinhauer, author of Liberation Movements

“For over fifty years Americans have tried to understand the world of North Korea. James Church does a better job of describing the isolated, impoverished, corrupt, and out- of-touch life in the North than anything I have seen. This novel is a must-read for anyone who would understand how precarious the dictatorship is.” —Newt Gingrich, author of Winning Back the Future and Never Call Retreat

“A gripping story of mystery and intrigue. The laconic Inspector O follows in the traditions of Inspector Arkady Renko, operating in a world of complexity and danger we're meeting here for the first time.” —Don Oberdorfer, author of Tet!

“Church's debut thriller breaks new ground. O is an original. This is an expert take on a complex, brutal, and mystifying society. Immerse yourself in it.” —Marshall Browne, author of Eye of the Abyss and the Inspector Anders series

The Corpse in the Koryo is a spellbinder. Bloody and chilling, yet subtle in its psychological detail, with an amazing understanding of North Korea.” —Ezra F. Vogel, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences, Harvard University Asia Center

“The (pseudonymous) author, a veteran intelligence officer, has intimate knowledge of Asian life and politics, and it shows: He gives the North Korea setting a feeling of palpable reality, depicting the nature of daily life under a totalitarian government not just with broad sociopolitical descriptions but also with specific everyday details. . . . There is also a little of Martin Cruz Smith's early Arkady Renko novels here. The writing is superb, too, well above the level usually associated with a first novel, richly layered and visually evocative.” —Booklist (starred review)

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In an impressive debut that calls to mind such mystery thrillers as Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, the pseudonymous Church, a former intelligence officer, provides a rare look into one of the world's most closed societies, North Korea. When Inspector O, a state security officer, is called on the carpet for botching a sensitive surveillance assignment, O soon realizes that competing forces in the military and intelligence hierarchies set him up to fail and that his personal and professional well-being depend on his walking a tightrope. The detective's pragmatic if unwavering commitment to the ideals of pursuing justice in the face of serious obstacles makes him a heroic figure who's well suited to carry future entries in what one hopes will be a long-lived series. Despite the exotic setting, Hammett and Chandler would have had no problem appreciating this hard-boiled narrative. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Inspector O of the Pyongyang Police Department is a man alone. His deceased grandfather was a national hero of the revolution, and O's brother is a high-ranking government official who has not spoken to O in years. No one is safe in the paranoia of North Korea's totalitarian regime, as O finds when he gets involved in a case that forces him to leave the city pursued by various factions and finding murder and danger everywhere he goes. For most of us, North Korea is undiscovered terrain. While we do not understand who the players are until well into the story, readers will be richly rewarded by their perseverance. The pseudonymous Church draws on his experience as a former intelligence officer in Asian countries to create believable characters and situations in an outstanding crime novel. Unlike Eliot Pattison's thrillers about Chinese-ruled Tibet and Stuart M. Kaminsky's Inspector Rostnikov mysteries, which introduced Soviet Moscow to the world, this debut holds little hope for the people of the country it depicts. Yet it is a not-to-be-missed reading experience. [See Prepub Mystery, LJ 6/1/06.] Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A complex debut mystery introducing Inspector O, who works out of North Korea's Ministry of People's Security. Inspector O thought his mission was a waste of time. He'd been sent to a hilltop to photograph a certain black Mercedes as it passed by, but with usual North Korean inefficiency, the camera didn't work. The task, however, had drawn the attention of his immediate supervisor, Chief Inspector Pak; Deputy Director Kang, of the rival investigative division; and Colonel Kim, from the military security command, who dislikes everyone and has been purging them all with extreme prejudice. Without understanding why, O is sent from headquarters in Pyongyang first to Kanggye, then to Manpo, down to Sinnanpo and finally to Hyangsan. Each stop reveals security headaches, including rival car-smuggling ventures, a Finnish corpse no one wants to claim, a sultry lady who may be a secret agent and intervention by O's disowned brother, whom he hasn't spoken to in five years. As alliances are shuffled, the danger to O escalates. He'll have to identify the killer of a small farm boy before he can understand who has Pak, Kang and him in his sights. Gripping, although a touch inscrutable. The pseudonymous Church, himself a former intelligence officer, doesn't believe in linear plotting but is an admirable stylist. Agent: Bob Mecoy/Creative Book Services

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Inspector O Series , #1
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

No sound but the wind, and in the stingy half-light before day, nothing to see but crumbling highway cutting straight through empty countryside. Laid out straight on a map thirty years ago, straight was how it was to be built. The engineers would have preferred to skirt the small hills that, oddly unconnected, sail like boats across the landscape. Straight, rigorously straight, literally straight, meant blasting a dozen tunnels. That meant an extra year of dangerous, unnecessary work for the construction troops, but there was no serious thought of deviating from the line on the map, pointing like Truth from the capital down to the border and drawn by a Hand none would challenge. Alas, to their regret, the engineers could not completely erase the rebellious contours of the land; in places, the road curved. For that, the general in charge, a morose man of impeccable loyalty, caught hell. Cashiered one afternoon, by evening he was on his way to the northern mountains to manage a farm on land so bleak the grass barely grew. Eventually, he was let back into the capital to serve out his years planning new highways—all straight as arrows, and none of them ever built. By then the mapmakers had learned their lesson. Every map showed the Reunification Highway running ruler-straight and true, and that was how people came to think of it. Hardly anyone traveled the road, so few knew any better.

My orders didn’t say where to look, only to be on the lookout for a car. No color, no description, just “a car.” This was routine. As the English poet said, it was all I needed to know.

Frankly, I had no interest in knowing more. At this hour, if a car did appear, I figured it would be moving fast from the south. Why a car would be coming up from that direction was an interesting problem, but I wasn’t curious. It wasn’t my business, and what I didn’t question couldn’t hurt me.

Take a picture, they said; that’s all I had to do. I looked through the viewfinder to find the range, then put the camera down on the grass. My vantage point was no problem—good angle, the distance fine for the lens, the lighting sufficient given that sunrise wouldn’t be for another half hour. I knew the road emerged from a short tunnel a kilometer away. The sound of the engine echoing against rock would reach ahead, giving me time to get ready before the car slammed into view. The driver had probably been running without lights; he would be tired from peering through the windshield into darkness, fighting to hold the center of the highway for the ribbon of good pavement that remained. He wouldn’t be looking up a hillside for anyone with a camera.

Now, though, nothing moved. No farmers walked along the road; not even a breeze rustled the cornfields bleached from too much summer and not enough rain. The only thing to do was wait and watch the line of hills emerge from the misty silence.

“Status?” It was turned low, but the sound of the radio still shattered the tranquility. I checked my watch. Every thirty seconds from now on the radio would spit out, “Status,” “Status,” “Status,” unless I turned it off.

The voice began again, then strangled on its own static. I left the dials alone. A better signal would only invite more noise. Anyway, no response was necessary. Nothing was happening, and I was already convinced nothing would happen. If a car hadn’t appeared by now, it would never show up.

I sat back to watch the third row of hills take shape, a dark ink wash against the barely light western horizon. The contours were smooth, not earth and rock but the silhouette of a woman lying on her side. Up the road, smoke curled toward the touch of morning. Probably from the village that worked the fields spread out below me. I turned my attention back to the highway and flexed my knees to keep my legs from falling asleep. A stone rolled down the hill from behind me. A split second later, I heard a bird cry and then the sound of its wings beating against the grass as it rose into the sky. This sort of surveillance always made me jumpy. I wanted a cup of tea.

The radio crackled back to life. “In case you’ve forgotten, you’re supposed to click. How many times do I have to tell you. Once for affirmative, twice for a negative.” The briefest pause, and I knew Pak was softening. “All right. It’s busted, come on in.”

“Save some tea.” I spoke softly into the handset, though there was not a living thing in sight.

“Can’t. The kettle’s gone. The red one. It disappeared.” Just from his voice, I could sense the trace of a smile on Pak’s lips.

“From a police station? How do we boil water without a kettle?” I should have brought my flask. A little vodka would have helped pass the time, especially if there was to be no morning tea. The office didn’t own a thermos. The Ministry had a few but refused to supply them, not even in the dead of winter, much less on an August morning like this. No matter that getting in position meant climbing a hill in the dark and sitting on wet grass until sunrise. The answer was always the same. “You want tea, Inspector? Perhaps we should offer rice porridge and pickles as well?” The supply officer had been around for years. When he talked, he simpered. Unfortunately, he kept impeccable records. Though we tried several times, no one could catch him taking a bribe. It was impossible to get rid of him.

Pak’s voice turned unusually official, signaling there was someone else in his office listening to our conversation. “Stop moaning. And turn off the radio. If we have to replace the battery—”

I heard the sound of an engine. “Car coming,” I broke in, no longer bothering to whisper. “Fast. Down the center of the road.” I grabbed the camera, framed the big Mercedes, and pressed the shutter. No click, no whir, no picture. Horn blaring, the black car stormed past. One minute it was flying toward me; the next it was disappearing, pale blue wild flowers along the roadside flattened in its wash.

I watched the car drop out of sight over a small rise, then threw down the camera in disgust. The battery was dead. But even a perfect picture would have been useless. The car had no plates.

Copyright © 2006 by James Church. All rights reserved.

Meet the Author

James Church (pseudonym) is a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia.

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Corpse in the Koryo (Inspector O Series #1) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. It is so different from other mysteries I've devoured in that the author drew me into the gray and complex world of communist politics in a convincing and interesting way. He truly demonstrates an understanding of life in a communist country (I remember vividly what China was like pre-Deng Xiaoping) and this authors NAILS it. If you like well-written murder mysteries that let you assume nothing and yet, learn about a completely different culture, this book is for you.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In North Korea, his superior Chief Inspector Pak assigns him to take a picture of the car when it drives by. Inspector O waits on the road when the black Mercedes arrives he takes out the state issued camera, clicks, and nothing happens as the battery is dead with no replacement in sight. It did not matter anyway as the vehicle had no license plate as the driver honked the horn speeding past O. --- O comes in knowing no tea awaits him since they lost the kettle. Joint Headquarters Captain Kim is obviously unhappy with the surveillance bungling, but is more outraged that O is not wearing a picture of either great Leader. Also in the room listening more than interrogating is Central Committee Deputy Director Kang. By the tone of the inquiry, O concludes these two alien outsiders are adversaries as they interrupt one another. He also realizes that the military and intelligence competition needs a fall guy though he is not sure why or how the Mercedes fits into his being the accused. Stoic, O seeks the truth while Pak suffers anxiety to the nth degree and the aliens continue to war over who bungled though O wonders what. --- Inspector O is a terrific character who understands the State quite well as he knows someone must be held accountable for errors, but s**t rolls downhill to people like him not bigwigs like the two aliens who make the blunders. Still he tries to his job properly in a closed society that does not share his values. His actions, even with the not so subtle threats of enemy combatants, Kim and Kang make for a superb hard boiled police procedural in which North Korea is the star. --- Harriet Klausner
RonnaL More than 1 year ago
The setting of this book really sounded interesting--North Korea.  Then add a mystery, and I was really looking forward to reading this book, but it really disappointed me.  It's the first book in a series, and "introduces" Inspector O.  But that was one of my big problems.  I'm one that always likes to read the first book in a series just so I can get a really good feel for the main character.  This book is actually told from the perspective of Insoector O being interrogated about a crime.  Unfortunately, that left very little opportunity to get any background on Inspector O.  The setting was a different matter. I got a real feel for the mountainous scenery and different buildings of the area. Someone is found dead in a hotel.  But inspector O was sent on a diversion assignment to photograph a specific place at a specific time.  Many chapters later, we see that all this was a diversion that Inspector O tried to muddle through on his own ethical terms, but the North Korean government wanted to keep their actual crimes covered up.  This was not really developed sufficiently in my mind.  I found the back and forth between interrogating and first person narrative a bit confusing also. Though I found lots of potential to like, I think James Church (a pseudo name for an actual North Korean spy) could have done so much more to introduce this character and develop his mystery.  Unsure if I would read more of these book or not, though the North Korean aspect still intrigues me.
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