The critically acclaimed A Corpse in the Koryo brought readers into the enigmatic workings of North Korean intelligence with the introduction of a new kind of detective—the mysterious Inspector O. In the follow-up, Hidden Moon, O threaded his way through the minefield of North Korean ministries into a larger conspiracy he was never supposed to touch.
Now the inspector returns.
In the winter of 1997, trying to stay alive during a famine that has devastated much of North Korea, Inspector O is ordered to play host to an Israeli agent who appears in Pyongyang. When the wife of a North Korean diplomat in Pakistan dies under suspicious circumstances, O is told to investigate—but with a curious proviso: Don’t look too closely at the details, and stay away from the question of missiles. O knows he can’t avoid uncovering what he is supposed to ignore on a trail that leads him from the dark, chilly rooms of Pyongyang to an abandoned secret facility deep in the countryside, guarded by a lonely general, and from the streets of New York to a bench beneath a horse chestnut tree on the shores of Lake Geneva, where the Inspector discovers he is up to his ears in missiles—and worse. Stalked by the past and wary of the future, O is convinced there is no one he can trust and no one he can’t suspect. Swiss intelligence wants him out of the country; someone else wants him dead.
Once again, James Church’s spare, lyrical prose guides listeners through an unfamiliar landscape of whispered words and shadows, a world wrapped in a level of mystery and complexity that few outsiders have experienced. With Inspector O, noir has a new home in North Korea, and James Church holds the keys.
James Church's third Inspector O novel just doesn't quite deliver the goods. It starts out fine, blending hard-boiled noir (Hammett/Chandler) with international political thriller (le Carré/Steinhauer) mixed with a bit/dash of Hemingway.
Where Hemingway was fixated on food, wine and women, Church fixates on lack of food, the cold and wood. It all works, if you can ignore the sloppy pacing that creeps into the end of the novel. The novel's first 3/4 seems fine, not exceptional, but interesting and not too overdone, but with about 70 pages left it seems like Church loses all interest in the project and decides it will take entirely too much time and work to weave the various narrative threads back, so he just leaves them, or cuts them off completely.
The end of the novel reminded me of the butchered Geneva plane trees that Inspector O was so upset by. It is hard to love something that hasn't been allowed to freely grow to its potential. As Inspector O says of the plane trees, "They might wish they were dead. No, they have been mangled. Their tops have been hacked off. They are maimed."
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