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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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Church, James: A Corpse in the Koryo

  Amazon  

3.5 stars

James Church's A Corpse in the Koryo is the first in the pseudonymous author's series of Inspector O novels. (Church is former intelligence officer who spent decades in Asia.) The Inspector is a police officer, an insignificant cog in the legal machinery of North Korea. One morning he finds himself sitting on a hill at dawn, looking over a highway, under orders to photograph a car that is due to go speeding north. The orders don't make much sense, and the mission fails badly. But from this nonsensical episode stems the rest of the book's action, in which Inspector O tries to figure out the rules of the game he's apparently being forced to play--something that's got Military Security involved and may get O killed. The problem is that no one in the book--and by extension no one in North Korea--speaks his mind. All discourse is suggestive, the better part left unsaid, because in the paranoid atmosphere of the book you can't trust anyone. Thus trying to get simple questions answered is a lesson in frustration.

A Corpse in the Koryo has its good points. Inspector O is a likable, three-dimensional character: He inevitably fails to wear his pin of the Great Leader, which counts as rebellion in North Korea. He detests his brother for reasons that aren't revealed in this first installment. Most endearingly, O, the grandson of a carpenter (and hero of the revolution), is preoccupied with wood. He calms his nerves and intimidates suspects by rubbing pieces of wood in his fingers until they assume the shape and smoothness nature intended. Among his prized possessions is a small collection of sandpaper--which, because it's an American product, has to be hidden from the authorities lest it be confiscated.

Church's writing is also poetic in parts, Inspector O being unusually thoughtful and attentive to the natural world. Finally, the fact that the novel is set in North Korea makes it an inherently interesting piece of fiction. The book is suffused with a sense of paranoia and deprivation, but I didn't feel as immersed in that alien culture while reading as I had expected.

The problem with A Corpse in the Koryo is that the book is so slow that reading it feels interminable. It's also very hard to understand what's going on because everything is hinted at rather than spelled out. Eventually, despite good writing and enigmatic characters, trying to figure out the book's plot doesn't seem worth the effort.

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