When was the last time you visited North Korea? I haven’t been there recently, but I hear it’s quite a trip. That’s why I picked up A Corpse in the Koryo. Written by a former intelligence agent, the novel offers a look into one of the murkiest places on the planet. It’s a world we can’t see through the filter of propaganda that controls every image of the nation we view. Through the eyes of a quietly individualistic detective, we can begin to understand the paranoia and despair that characterize, so we are led to believe, life in the DRPK.
Inspector O is a Pyongyang police detective who, while not disloyal, has a hard time toeing the party line. He becomes tangled in a violent rivalry between two high ranking government officials and their relative departments. It really doesn’t matter how. You’ll read how, but events just fall from out of the blue. Nothing is ever as it seems, and friends are never to trusted, so it really does no good trying to figure things out. But Inspector O has no choice. When a foreign corpse is found in the Koryo hotel, O is put on the case. His boss tells him to just retire and leave the city – not an auspicious sign. From this point to the end of the story, the reader is left in a constant state of bewilderment as events and people enter the stage without explanation. Something is going behind the scenes, but what? Who do you trust? Inspector O is not much help since he, like everyone else in North Korea, knows that survival depends on not finding anything out as much as it does on solving the case. Consequently, our protagonist holds his cards close to his chest and doesn’t always reveal what he’s thinking.
It’s just as well, because knowing Inspector O is dangerous. Even people who simply speak to him in passing seem to end up dead. But were they just passing? Could be they were agents furthering the ends of some unseen mastermind. By the end of the story, the “mystery” is solved, but we don’t really know to what end. Lots of people are dead, but we can’t even be sure who they are. Everything remains ambiguous and if your don’t like it, well, like Inspector O says, “Welcome to my world.”
A Corpse in the Koryo by James Church