While publishers comb the fjords for the next Stieg Larsson, readers devoted to bleak international noir would do better to turn their attention from Northern Europe to Asia. North Korea, to be exact. The hero of The Man With the Baltic Stare, the fourth and perhaps last in a series of excellent crime novels following Inspector O, might not know how to use the cell phone he sometimes has to carry. But like Larsson’s heroine, a petite Asperger-ish libertarian in the land of large blondes and big government, the self-contained Inspector O bucks the stereotypes that we associate with his country. He is an actual human being from a place we imagine is inhabited by zombies.
The country’s minutely choreographed military parades and Mass Games are designed to convey the illusion that North Korea operates as one, but the Inspector O series reminds us that each dot in the Human Jumbo-Tron is a person with sore arms. Within an apparently monolithic government, intrigue reigns. The pseudonymous author James Church, identified on the back covers as “a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia,” first turned to fiction in A Corpse in the Koryo(2006). With the fourth volume, his inside-out exploration of a shrouded world now spans the last two decades of turmoil in North Korea and may be among the most nuanced portrayals available.
Kim Jong-il is never mentioned by name, but his influence as “the central” is everywhere. The country’s spies, administrators, investigators, and police officers serve as the behind-the-scenes guides to incidents that have made newspaper headlines. In A Corpse in the Koryo, O’s odd assignment is to take a photograph of a certain car, on a certain road. His mission puts him in the middle of a murder plot, government smuggling, and North Korea’s infamous abductions of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and ‘80s, and highlights the illogic and secrecy that pervadeboth official and nonofficial business in North Korea. When we next meet O, in Hidden Moon(2007), North Korean leaders are shaken by a broad-daylight bank holdup—somehow connected to a possible assassination and coup. O’s real challenge is to figure out how such an unfathomably brazen crime could happen in a society so apparently obedient. The third installment, Blood and Bamboo, dips back in time to the most harrowing period, the famine of the mid-’90s that some experts estimate left almost 1 million dead. O must deal with his growling stomach as he investigates foreign arms deals and the murder of a diplomat’s wife in Pakistan.
Church’s plots are ingeniously convoluted, but the greatest mystery of the Inspector O novels is: Why does O—or any North Korean with a chance to leave—remain in the nation that the rest of the world sees as a brutal, backward anachronism? Church’s real gift lies in intensifying that mystery, presenting to us a nation of living and conniving people, not brainwashed ciphers. In his fourth volume, he sheds more light than has been ever before on the puzzling mix of motives that lurk in the North Korean who stays put. You don’t have to be a lover of thrillers to be fascinated by this series.
In The Man With the Baltic Stare, O has retired and lives in virtual exile atop a mountain. To his annoyance, he is recalled to Pyongyang, where he realizes something is up: There are too many streetlights in the normally dark capital. There, a South Korean operative named Kim informs him that “the central,” who as in real life is in failing health, has decided to secure his legacy by beginning the transition to reunification. Now O finds himself caught between the different interests fighting for influence in the new order, from outside and inside North Korea. As the end draws near for the country he has defended—in the army, as an inspector, and as an international representative—we learn more about why O continues to feel anything remotely akin to loyalty to a regime that he, more than most, understands is brutal and inhuman.
Of course, Inspector O is by no means a representative citizen. By the standards of North Korea, he is a sophisticate with a worldly perspective. He speaks several languages. He frequently, though reluctantly, travels abroad and feels secure enough in the hard-line society to “forget” at home the Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il badge that is supposed to be pinned to his breast. “[E]very time I put the little round badge on,” he says, “it pricked my finger. Same place, every time. As far as I was concerned it was a nuisance, a sharp point in my life I didn’t need. …”
Though he is scolded for this overt display of rebellion, he never faces serious repercussions, thanks to his background. After his parents died, he and his brother were raised by their grandfather, anointed a “hero of the republic” for his service in the Korean War and as an anti-Japanese guerilla. This honorable legacy shielded O from some of the worst repression and opened opportunities beyond neighborhood schools and factory work, which have allowed him some precious extra freedom of thought.
But beneath the progressive surface, O is a traditionalist, looking back with longing to the morals and lessons his grandfather taught him—wisdom about woodworking, trees, and their corollaries in life: “You have to keep things neat,” O recalls his grandfather telling him. “Life may not be like that, not for humans, anyway. … But there is order to everything else around us. You’ll never come across a disorderly forest, and I’m not talking about trees standing in rows and saluting, either.” O orients himself by these small hints from a man who grew disillusioned with the regime later in life: Order is not the same as militarism; neatness does not require total control.
In the only Communist country that is still a dynasty, such filial ties are an inheritance that can’t be taken away—and that exist even for “the central” himself, who is believed to be readying one son for succession. But it is in O’s equally traditionalist refusal to turn his back on his country that he seems in step with his compatriots. Church doesn’t presume to offer a political diagnosis, but his introverted hero suggests clues to the absence of a resistance movement: Rebellion here takes the form of solitude. What Church’s novels excel at, aside from unspooling intricate plots, is evoking an ethos of unexpected ambivalence. Our North Korean detective’s heart may not beat for the Dear Leader, but he rejects his many opportunities to defect over the course of four novels that have included numerous trips to New York, Geneva, Pakistan, China, Macau, Prague, and elsewhere.
His reasons are nuanced, sentimental, illogical, and as such may well be recognizable to the many real-life North Koreans—from diplomats to entrepreneurs regularly criss-crossing the Chinese border—who fail to snatch the chance to flee a country that so horrifies observers. There are obviously compelling reasons to stay put: The country has entombed in brutal prison camps the immediate and extended family members of escapees and political prisoners. North Korea has also attempted repeatedly to assassinate high-profile defectors, a lesson that diplomats and other prominent officials must have absorbed.
But O represents those North Koreans whose decision to stay is not predicated on such life-or-death calculations. He loathes—as much as he is allowed or even able to articulate such loathing—the regime and its accoutrements, the concentration camps, the underhanded dealings, the massive gap between the haves who drive cars on nearly deserted roads and the have-nots who starve to death. Yet he is resentful of those foreigners who look at his nation and see merely a bleak no-man’s land.
No matter how disillusioned he becomes with the North Korean “central,” O hates what others stand for even more—and his excursions into foreign intelligence have revealed plenty to despise. In The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, B.R. Myers, one of the foremost experts on North Korea, emphasizes the DPRK’s obsession with racial purity and pride too often missed in international portrayals. To O, the powers that seek to destabilize and control his country—in particular, China, South Korea, Russia, Japan—are “snakes, big snakes, the sort of snakes that swallow full-grown deer and then burp with pleasure.” He may be a free-thinker by the standards of his country, but he retains a Spartan North Korean taste for simple living and especially condemns South Korea’s surge into Western culture.
O is not a stone; he indulges in the occasional romantic dalliance or bout of drinking. But his alienation from the rapacious consumption he sees abroad is echoed by the 15,000 North Korean defectors for whom life amid the economic bustle of South Korea can feel like life on a different planet. O must struggle to reconcile his anti-North Korea political perspective with a cultural outlook that is deeply suspicious of capitalist excess. In a scene in which his South Korean handler Maj. Kim dismisses North Korea as “a lie,” O lashes back with something approximating patriotism, though he also silently acknowledges that he hasn’t conveyed his true feelings:
“You’re going to find this hard to understand, Kim, but it wasn’t a lie. That word can’t cover how tens of millions of people lived their lives for nearly seventy years. We had something to believe in, a way to order existence. Maybe people didn’t have much, most of them had very little, but for practically all of those years they felt they belonged to something.” … None of this sociopolitical pabulum was worth a damn. All that mattered was that I was not going to give Kim the pleasure of seeing me admit that my entire existence had been wrong.
Wrong or right, his existence has been one that has supported the status quo. He may despise the camps, the forced displays of patriotism, the price of honesty. But he has dedicated his life to the regime, and when he learns that global powers are collaborating on plans for a liberalizing succession—that change will not be the work of North Koreans themselves—his response is not what you might expect. Instead of joyous anticipation of new freedoms, O responds with dour pessimism. Who knows what may come next: a soulless capitalism, a diamond to pin to one’s breast instead of a man’s image? Whatever happens, if Church obliges his fans by carrying on the Inspector O franchise, you can count on plenty of murders—and more than that, on a detective of two minds, and a conflicted heart, at the ready to solve them.