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

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

by James Church

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312374310
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 09/04/2007
Series: Inspector O Series , #1
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 560,244
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

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

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.

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Corpse in the Koryo (Inspector O Series #1) 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 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
MarthaHuntley on LibraryThing 28 days ago
This is a mystery where even the mystery remains a mystery. The book is long on atmosphere and local color(lessness), and short on crime. It does make the point that in those countries where law and order are tyrannically upheld, the government tends to be the one that is criminal. For setting, this book gets an A, however. It evokes the depression of life in North Korea -- where everything is scarce, if not totally unavailable, from tea to sympathy, and nothing, but nothing, works. ( Inspector O's constant quest for the elusive tea is a clue that nothing is going to get better.) The multiple layers of bureaucracy and paranoia, the stifling of thought or creativity of any kind, the claustophobia are all thick and believable. Inspector O would be a likeable character, if he wasn't so empty inside, but how could it be otherwise?
FicusFan on LibraryThing 28 days ago
This is a mystery set in modern day North Korea. It is also the start of the Inspector O series. I really wanted to like it more than I did. The setting intrigues me, The writing was good, it flowed well and made as much sense as the story allowed. That was my biggest problem with the book. There were a lot of cryptic comments, a lot of aimless wandering around, and a lot of verbal fencing - talking about a car wreck and 2 murders as if they didn't happen, then ignoring them. There were power players that didn't have explanations as to why they were there and how they all connected together.I think the author did it to emulate trying to work and live under a dictatorship. And it was effective, it just detracted from the story. The corpse of the title didn't show up until about page 136. Then his murder was a minor plot point, and the killer and the truth about the murder was never really presented. It was all swallowed in politics, and conjecture.The story is of powerful heads of the Ministries of Intelligence (Kang) and Security (Kim) showing up in the office of Inspector O's boss. There is something going on, and they are involved. His boss Pak sends him on a tour of remote areas to escape the Ministry plot. Kang from Intelligence pops up and tells O what to do, the Security people have goons follow O. It seems the Security people really want Kang, the Intelligence guy. It is never explained why O and his boss Pak are drawn in. Or what he is doing on his tour. There is a good bit of detail about his past, his current life and the difficulty of life under the dictatorship. Even the smallest item is considered anti-social if it is different. They have little pay, and few of even the basic essentials to do their job. The cameras may not have batteries, let alone those that work. Their official police cars may not have fuel. The camera incident comes to light because O is sent to a hillside before dawn to take a picture of a car that is expected to pass by. He is to take a picture of the license plate of the car, for someone higher up who wants to use it for blackmail. That is the life of a police officer there, not just keeping the peace, or enforcing the laws, but meeting the needs of those with more power, regardless of what they want.The story is very disjointed and never really explained. At the end O comes up with an explanation but it seems not to really come from the story, just something that is used to end the book. It could have just as easily been a different story and it would have seemed as plausible.Interspersed with the story of O is a section where O is telling the events to a stranger. An Irish agent who is asking questions about the events and recording everything. There is no explanation of why or where they are (until the end) or what the agent wants. Even the retelling makes no real connections.I have the 2nd book in the series and will read it. I usually give a new series 3 books to sort itself out. I hope this one does because it just seems to have the potential to be both good and interesting.
catarina1 on LibraryThing 28 days ago
As a reader of books set in Asia, as a fan of mysteries, I wanted to like this book. But find I can't say anything good about it. There's a lot of talking, a lot of traveling around, "clues" being dropped, but without much point. It all comes to naught. I picked this book up because of mentions elsewhere on LT and only read the "praise" on the back cover after I finished the book. That's when I saw a comment from that illustrious and accomplished writer Newt Gingrich - "This novel is a must-read for anyone who would understand how precarious the dictatorship is." All I can say to that is - Hogwash!!My recommendation - don't bother. Life is too short.
Capfox on LibraryThing 28 days ago
I find it hard not to be fascinated on some level with North Korea. It's not something I indulge often, because there's such a high pathos level about the place, but it does draw the attention. How must it be to live in a country so rigidly controlled, and to be so close to other places that were so similar culturally, and yet so much better and more sane places to live? It boggles the mind.I'd heard of this book rather a while ago; in fact, I have this feeling I bought it for my friend Greg as a present at some point. I finally got around to giving it a try, after the new Kim took over and was settling into the news, and I remembered it. Turns out that it's quite a good story, a mystery that's really a sharp look at the society in which it's set.Inspector O, a member of the Pyongyang police force, is sent off his beat to take pictures one morning of a car speeding along a road heading up from the south towards the capital. When his camera doesn't work, he gets called into a meeting with two government operatives from different agencies, Kang and Kim, and is then caught in a slowly revealed struggle between them that carries O around the country, dealing with everyone from other police forces to lawless border town residents to resident aliens.The story isn't a total success - the framing story, where O is telling his story to an Irish agent after all the events of the story, seems particularly unnecessary, and things are opaque for rather longer than was probably called for, pacing-wise - but on the other hand, the characters and their environment are well-sculpted. Church was a former intelligence officer in the area, and his experience certainly shows through in his observations of the society, and all the myriad ways people work around the state's crushing powers. O himself is probably the best example of this, in that he's probably the most overtly against the power structures in the story; he doesn't wear his Dear Leader pin, he keeps around contraband in his office drawers, he hews to a desire to deal with the woodworking his grandfather loved during and after his army surface.But it may just be that we see the most of O's breaks from authority; certainly, we get the sense that pretty much everyone is trying to work around the rules in one way or another, from importing Western porn to cars to cigarettes, to being able to criticize the state, but only in situations where the massive security apparatus can't see it, ideally. And they see a lot; we see a lot of them, indeed, including around the titular corpse. However, O and the others don't really seem to want to leave. They're proud of their country and what it does. They just want it easier on themselves.On the whole, this book definitely feeds the fascination with the little hermit country and its people, but it's still a somewhat uneven first effort plot-wise. Perhaps Church will do better in his next book in the series, but this one is still of interest to people who want to understand North Korea more.
graysongirl on LibraryThing 28 days ago
Outstanding writing and characterization. This mystery, the first in a series about Inspector O, has inspired me to read more about North Korea, including Nothing to Envy: ordinary lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.
bezoar44 on LibraryThing 28 days ago
An interesting mystery/political thriller that succeeds in creating a distinctive, claustrophobic, and mostly dreary narrative world. Whether the novel accurately reflects what it's like to live in North Korea, I have no idea - and frankly, I doubt any of the authors or public figures whose names are attached to the jacket blurbs know either. The marketing for the book emphasizes that the author worked as an intelligence officer and has traveled widely in Asia; but since his (or her) identity is secret, there's no way to tell whether those experiences should really lend the book credibility. Taken on its own terms, the story has a lot of nice touches - for example: the narrator's inability to obtain a cup of tea shows how even basic comforts are out of reach in a dysfunctional totalitarian state, and how few people share with anyone else without an expectation of payback. The beauty of the land, and the narrator's lyrical appreciation of it, provides one of the few lightening elements in an otherwise bleak story. I found it difficult to make sense of one of the novel's key conceits - that the narrator is recounting his story in an interview with an agent of some foreign government or network -- and ultimately I didn't grasp where that strand of the plot went - though perhaps I missed something, or perhaps it's a set up for a subsequent novel. Despite that misgiving, I liked the story well enough that I'll probably try the second in the series to see if the books get stronger or the character grows.
BarbN on LibraryThing 5 months ago
This is a finely crafted mystery, with wonderful characterizations and an astonishing sense of place. Lyrical and spare in prose, with passages of empathy and great beauty set against a backdrop of brutality. Inspector O is a delight, seeing the hidden grain in both wood and people, and slowly exploring both to find the true underlying forms, the strengths and weaknesses. An excellent read for a quiet place.
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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