Presidents and foreign policies may change but I still get a kick out of reading books about cultures we in the West don’t study much – while we may not refer to an "axis of evil" in 2009 we're still not likely to know much about North Korea, Libya, Cuba, and a few other nations not deemed to be good friends of the USA.
So to learn more about those places that often shrouded in mystery in the past couple of years I’ve dipped my toes into such books as “Literature from the Axis of Evil” and “In the Country of Men” by Hisham Matar – the latter novel is set in modern day Libya.
My newest read took me to the so called “hermit kingdom” of North Korea – by way of a mystery/detective story related by one Inspector O, a detective in the North Korean People’s Security Service. Written by a former Western “operative” stationed in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, the book rings true in its depiction of life in a closed society.
The world in which Inspector O works is a world of shadows and shifting shapes, a world in which not much is what it seems to be, where the Inspector and those with whom he works must be vigilant for the slightest of telltale signs – warning flags as O succinctly calls them.
O is given a case by the higher-ups in the People’s Security Service that he finds implausible at first – a daring daylight robbery of Pyongyang’s only bank. But the more O investigates the bank robbery – and soon two murders – the more O becomes aware that he has two stark choices: solve the bank robbery and the murders quickly or be sucked into a maelstrom of evil that he will need more than luck and skill to survive. In a land where the surface often hides a murky depth, HIDDEN MOON takes O much deeper into the violent world of North Korean politics than the police inspector ever wished to go.
The character of O is drawn with care and discerning by author James Church. A man truly committed to his work, O lives as keenly when out walking his beat as when in his sparsely configured office – O’s apartment, in a building overseen by a gruff and inquisitive female gatekeeper, is an afterthought in a very thoughtful life. And since there is not a lot of radio or TV going in O’s life (nor, I suspect from the book’s presentation, not in North Korea as a whole), O has time to think about stuff – and while thinking O’s favorite way to focus is by stroking, sanding or carving odd pieces of wood he has picked up over the years.
Allow me to note that there is no internet to intrude into O's world either (heck, O has trouble figuring out his cell phone much less the vastness of the ‘net – not a lot of folks seem to have cell phones in North Korea and O’s frustration with his own phone finds little solace from the few other North Korean officials who DO have one of the government issued noise makers).
O’s life is filled with characters, as any good detective novel will have. There’s Min, O’s chief - a man whose natural inclination to worry is reinforced by his weekly immersion into the People’s Republic’s political bureaucracy; the lovely Miss Chon, a mysterious banker from that aforementioned bank that was robbed – Miss Chon claims to hail from the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan but O learns Miss Chon has no official background – no “file” in the North Korean police bureaucracy – unheard of for a woman not native to the fatherland. And top it all off we come to a hulking fellow from Scotland. He introduces himself to O as a detective newly arrived in Pyongyang to handle security for a soon-to-be-visiting British dignitary – sent because our Scotsman is a European with some limited Korean language skills. He makes Inspector O’s life (and O's crime investigations) yet more complicated with his larger-than-life personality and presence.
The North Korea portrayed in HIDDEN MOON is a human-ized land. Yes, there are plenty of moments when one realizes we’re not reading a mystery set in Tokyo, or New York, Paris, Rio, Cairo or Beijing. But that said there we read of young lovers sitting together at sunset on benches along the city’s river; Club Blue offers enough vice and underworld action to fit into any good detective story.
Yet at the same time Pyongyang is portrayed as having an obviously limited evening social life (though there IS an after hours bar scene), not many plane flights in or out (the arrival of a key character – the Scotsman - on a private plane throws off O and his boss who are accustomed to the weekly arrival and departure of visitors not the sudden appearance of a foreigner!), and the threat of a immediate posting to the “countryside” or the mountains (far from urban Pyongyang in more ways than just geography) is a real threat that looms in the background of O and the men and women with whom he interacts.
HIDDEN MOON is the second in what is now a continuing series of detective novels set in the North Korean capital – and we know the series is doing well when we learn that the newest Inspector O novel is available now in large print as well as regular print size.
Inspector O is a fellow I’ve come to appreciate – the kind of guy I might want to have a beer with – if I enjoyed drinking beer!
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