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Cop walks a tightrope in N. Korea

by Mark Schreiber

THE CORPSE IN THE KORYO by James Church. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2006, 280 pp., $23.95, (cloth)

A lot of people get killed in “The Corpse in the Koryo,” and nobody seems to miss them.

“Inspector O,” a North Korean cop, walks a tightrope as he investigates a series of cases while grappling with the contradictions of his isolated neo-Stalinist world. This original work has evoked comparisons with Martin Cruz Smith’s 1980 best-seller “Gorky Park,” but in terms of its moody milieu, “Koryo” — named for the Pyongyang hotel where a foreigner is found dead — may more closely resemble British author Philip Kerr’s “Berlin Noir” novels set in Germany during the Nazi years.

The protagonist, merely by engaging in independent thought, is transformed into the hunter who becomes the hunted, a sort of North Korean version of Orwell’s Winston Smith.

Interspersed with O’s first-person account are flashbacks of late-night sessions conducted in Eastern Europe, where O is undergoing a less-than-cordial debriefing by a foreign operative.

O’s story is the classic predicament of a man sent on a fool’s errand. There’s no point, after all, to solve crimes in a country where an invisible force holds complete sway over life and death. O’s efforts can make little difference in the overall scheme of things, and he knows it.

While a true murder mystery would focus on arriving at a solution, Church is really concerned with creating and sustaining a mood. His characters are all pawns, and their lives, and deaths, are assigned no meaning — except, apparently, to satisfy the regime’s seeming voracious appetite for blood.

Of all the characters in the book, O is the only one who is really developed. The accounts of his travels to a city on the border with China, and later to a resort near Pyongyang, seethes with tension.

Every person he encounters — even his own colleagues — emanates with hostility and suspicion. Is life of a cop in North Korea really so dismal? Perhaps. But my advice would be to enjoy this police procedural without accepting it as an accurate portrayal of the country and its people. The actual situation, I suspect, is probably somewhat better in most cases, and worse in a few.

Author James Church, according to the flyleaf, “is the pseudonym for a former Western intelligence officer . . . .” The quotes here are intentional, since a pseudonymous identity may or may not represent a true description. That said, I look forward to Inspector O’s return in a sequel.