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Intrigues above and below the 38th parallel

by Mark Schreiber

HIDDEN MOON by James Church. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007, 293 pp., $23.95 (cloth)

THE WANDERING GHOST by Martin Limon. New York: SOHO Press, 2007, 314 pp., $24 (cloth)

In this tersely written sequel to “The Corpse in the Koryo,” the North Korean cop who goes by the name Inspector O returns for an encore.

O’s been ordered to investigate the robbery of a foreign bank in Pyongyang — an exceedingly rare crime in itself in the People’s Democratic Republic. To make matters more confusing, one of the robbers fleeing the crime scene was squashed flat by a public bus running the wrong route.

Nobody, O warns his supervisor Min, wants this case resolved.

“Category one cases . . .” O soliloquizes. “. . . we were expected to investigate and, where possible, solve. [In] category two cases [we] were expected to be seen as investigating but not to solve. Category three cases were those we were to avoid — leave every stone unturned. In fact . . . it was best not even to record that there were any stones. No records, no files, no nothing.”

O isn’t a true maverick — in North Korea even the slightest grumble borders on insubordination — but so far the status of his late grandfather, a heroic army general, has kept him out of trouble.

But O’s situation is tenuous at best. Whisked away by the secret police, he awakens handcuffed in a chair, to be painfully grilled by a murky character who could have been the identical twin of Winston Smith’s interrogator in George Orwell’s “1984.”

The dramatis personae include a procession of exotic and sinister characters, including a pair of mysterious Germans; a Russian street peddler of women’s stockings; and a Kazakh female bank manager, who speaks fluent Korean, and who holds “Scottish” nationality.

In “Hidden Moon,” nobody is who they seem. While more readable than his previous work, James Church’s latest novel still winds up a jumble of loose ends. In North Korea, it seems, mysteries by Western authors are fated to come across as riddles wrapped in enigmas.

Cold war cops

No mistake about it: Martin Limon can spin one hell of a story. That said, his hard-boiled police procedurals (“The Wandering Ghost” is the fifth) are locked into South Korea during the waning years of the Vietnam war. So once again swashbuckling Army CID investigators George Suen~o and Ernie Bascomb find themselves in a spine-tingling adventure, this time with orders to track down a military policewoman who has gone missing under suspicious circumstances. Their task is thwarted by practically everyone, from their 2nd Division counterparts to the local black marketers.

Limon’s tightly woven narratives manage to portray the Korea of the early 1970s with astonishing realism. You can envisage the weathered “hootches” (Korean homes), hear “Three Dog Night” reverberating in tacky GI bars and taste the kimchi.

This formula, however, may be starting to wear thin. I’d like to see Limon diversify his formidable writing skills, say, by spinning a thriller about Korean immigrants in the United States, or even about American GIs in today’s Korea. The camps along the DMZ, after all, are still there.