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Nightmares from N. Korea

by Mark Schreiber

LOVE SONGS FROM A SHALLOW GRAVE, by Colin Cotterill. SOHO Crime, 2010, 326 pp., $25 (hardcover)

THE MAN WITH THE BALTIC STARE, by James Church. Minotaur, 2010, 288 pp., $24.99 (hardcover)

International news agencies that pride themselves on their astute investigative journalism regularly admit that their reports about events in secretive North Korea tend to be cautiously worded mixtures of well-worn facts and informed guesswork.

Novels, on the other hand, aren’t bound by the same constraints. Conventional potboilers portray the denizens of the People’s Democratic Republic as goose-stepping fanatics with Kim Il Sung badges on their threadbare lapels, who screech hostile epithets across the 38th Parallel and will eagerly inform on a compatriot who consumes one grain of rice over the allotted ration.

In the Inspector O series James Church has created a rare exception, a North Korean protagonist whose job it is to enforce the system while somehow managing to cling to his own shredded humanity.

In the fourth of Church’s series, Inspector O has retired to a humble shack on the summit of a remote mountain, where he keeps himself occupied with carpentry tools. His return to Pyongyang is analogous to Rip van Winkle’s awakening from a long slumber.

With the end of the Kim Dynasty approaching, the vultures have begun to circle overhead, and soon practically everything will be up for grabs. Chinese capitalists have begun nibbling away at one end of the country and the South Korean military operates at least one discreet representative office in Pyongyang, where its head, a Major Kim, is intent on pushing his own agenda.

Inspector O, the grandson of an army general who has earned the wary trust of those in power, is assigned to investigate the gruesome murder of a Russian prostitute by an unnamed Korean VIP in a swank hotel in Macau. Figuring out how this incident relates to the rest of the plot is the literary equivalent of a Rorschach test, and by the book’s end it’s clear that Inspector O’s function in the overall scheme of things is merely to help those in power postpone the inevitable.

Killing fields

In contrast to Church’s work, which takes place in the present with vague hints toward what is in store for North Korea’s future, Colin Cotterill portrays events that occurred in Laos three decades ago.

Seven months after the fall of the U.S.-backed government in South Vietnam in 1975, the communist Pathet Lao emerged victorious in that country’s civil war and established its own style of socialism. Dr. Siri Paiboun, an elderly French-educated physician who supported the revolution, now serves as the country’s venerable national coroner.

In “Love Songs from a Shallow Grave,” the seventh appearance in the series, Dr. Siri and his revolutionary comrade in arms Civilai are dispatched to Phnom Penh on a diplomatic mission. While the Khmer Rouge tries to keep its foreign guests from witnessing the horrors of their reign of terror, Siri sees too much, and diplomatic immunity accords him no protection from Pol Pot’s bloodthirsty minions.

Meanwhile back in Laos’ capital, Vientiane, three young women are fatally stabbed by a Zorro-like killer — right down to the trademark “Z” slashed onto his victims’ bodies — using what appears to be a European-style fencing epee. The investigation is conducted mostly in Siri’s absence by his klutzy but loyal staff, their family members and friends.

The three episodes of crime and detection alternate with harrowing accounts of Siri’s brutal interrogations at the hands of his Khmer Rouge captors, who are determined to make him confess that he is a spy for the hated Vietnamese.

Cotterill, a resident of Thailand, has a gift for creating memorably eccentric characters, while spinning a fascinating array of Southeast Asian history and folklore into his narratives.