O and the great North Korean bank robbery

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O and the great North Korean bank robbery

Inspector O of Pyongyang’s Ministry of People’s Security has a bank robbery to solve, but he’s already running into problems. It’s the city’s first ever bank so no one in the ministry knows what to do. And O isn’t even sure where the bank is ― that’s not much call for ATMs in a country where there’s not much cash.
But another concern is making O fret. “I knew, absolutely knew, beyond any doubt, that somebody didn’t want the case solved,” he says.
Pyongyang in James Church’s “Hidden Moon” is a city of shifting allegiances, cutthroat party factions and multilayered cloaks of intrigue, behind which daggers are kept permanently drawn.
It’s a low-tech world, as you’d expect. Cars splutter around town on near-empty gas tanks, the police have no computers, cell phones don’t work properly and the local pathologist has to reuse her surgical gloves after every autopsy ― she can’t afford to replace them.
In this threadbare city of empty streets, chilly noodle shops and dank apartments, O’s dilemma is acute.
If he nabs the robbers, he might upset an even bigger crook lurking among the elite cadres; if he fails, he get exiled to some grim outpost on the Russian border.
The grandson of a war hero, O sets about solving the crime by going through the motions. He follows the only clue ― a silk stocking worn as a mask by one of the robbers ― first to the scene of the crime, The Gold Star Bank, managed by Miss Chon, a sultry Korean-Kazakh rumored to be married to a Scot, and then onto Club Blue, an ill-lit basement bar run by thugs.
His investigations bring him into contact with brutal Chinese gangsters holed up at one of the city’s hotels, a Russian smuggler who specializes in lingerie, renegade German revolutionaries and sharply dressed North Koreans, whose wallets are packed with euros. The detective uncovers bodies face down in rivers and knifed in the back outside bars.
Detective fiction depends on the authenticity of the star character ― the sleuth. Think Rebus in Ian Rankin, Morese in Colin Dexter’s books or, dare I say, Sherlock Holmes himself.
They have to engage readers and be smart enough to hold together the plot that, in a lot of detective fiction, is often plugged with more holes than the corpses in the story.
And like great literary detectives, O has his eccentricities: he keeps slithers of wood in his pockets, which he rubs when stressed, in much the same way Holmes enjoyed the occasional hit of cocaine.
Surprisingly, O likes Pyongyang. He’s got no desire to leave.
After returning from a business trip to China at the start of the story, he says, “I needed to sit where the diners ate quietly, unlike in Beijing , people didn’t chatter loudly to no purpose. The street was deserted; no neon signs assaulted the dark. Two cars passed slowly, their lights off. It felt good to be home.”
O’s seen the “outside,” as North Koreans in Church’s novel fondly refer other countries, but O’s content with his city’s open spaces, the quiet parks and his cramped flat.
And the non-Koreans in the book tend to be murders, gangsters and smugglers.
O never discusses politics ― the novel is written in the first-person ― but it’s clear he wants his country purged of the crooks that run it.
This is Church’s second novel in the Inspector O series. The first was “A Corpse in the Koryo,” published in 2006.
Church is a pseudonym, and the blurb describes the author is a “former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia.”
The author is photographed in silhouette, lighting a pipe with a hat covering all but a beard.
It’s also interesting, for me at least, that O is part of a growing trend in fictional Asian detectives.
We already have the Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep in John Burdett's novels like “Bangkok 8,” Colin Cotterill’s engaging Dr. Siri mystery series set in Laos and the Feng Shui detective series by Nury Vittachi.
And now O.

Author: James Church
Genre: Crime Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Minotaur

By Michael Gibb Deputy Editor [mjcgibb@yahoo.com]

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