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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

  

A Corpse in the Koryo

by
James Church


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase A Corpse in the Koryo



Title: A Corpse in the Koryo
Author: James Church
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006
Length: 280 pages
Availability: A Corpse in the Koryo - US
A Corpse in the Koryo - UK
A Corpse in the Koryo - Canada
A Corpse in the Koryo - India
Un mort à l'hôtel Koryo - France
Inspektor O - Deutschland
  • An Inspector O Novel

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Our Assessment:

B : decent other-worldly atmosphere, but opacity gets a bit tiresome

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 14/8/2008 Christian Caryl
Time . 11/1/2007 Tim Morrison
Die Zeit . 3/3/2008 Tobias Gohlis


  From the Reviews:
  • "Church (...) has an excellent eye for detail and a flair for the high art of gumshoe deadpan. (...) Inspector O's story is told in a series of vivid flashbacks, related to an Irish intelligence officer during a cat-and-mouse encounter in Prague. Their vignettes make a compelling side narrative to the main tale, but the best feature of the book is how it builds, brick by dirty gray brick, a portrait of North Korean society that feels far more real than any debriefing. (...) For all its originality and beguiling observation, A Corpse in the Koryo has the air of having been finished in a hurry." - Tim Morrison, Time

  • "O bewegt sich in einer Welt aus Zeichen, deren Sinn er nicht deuten kann. (...) Church zeichnet eine Gesellschaft, in der die Willkür herrscht." - Tobias Gohlis, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Corpse in the Koryo is set in contemporary North Korea, the central character an Inspector O who describes himself as: "a poor, dumb inspector with unit 826 of the People's Security Ministry"; this novel is the first in a series. O had a famous grandfather, who raised him, and is unmarried and in his mid-fifties; he works in the capital of Pyongyang.
       The story opens with him on an unusual assignment: he's sent to lie in wait and take a photograph of a passing car (this being North Korea, not many cars pass by). It doesn't go well: the camera's battery is dead -- but then that shouldn't come as much of a surprise, since they're short of practically everything, even the most basic office equipment and the like. Unfortunately, however, there are others interested in his assignment, as he finds a Captain Kim "from joint headquarters" and "Deputy Director Kang from the Investigations Department" waiting for him along with his boss, Chief Inspector Pak, when he gets back from his failed mission. O has no idea what they want from him, but clearly he's waded into something; he can also tell that Kim and Kang are apparently not exactly on friendly terms and each has their own agenda. As to what those agendas may be, he can't even begin to guess; in ultra-secretive North Korea it's almost impossible to ever know what's going on anyway.
       The story is, in fact, largely presented in terms of a sort of flashback, as there are also chapters set in Prague, where O is briefing an Irishman, a Western secret agent, about what happened; why he is doing so only becomes clear at the end, but some of what happens is revealed early on -- like the fact that Kang ended up dead.
       O moves in the murky waters that is North Korean life, where there is little privacy -- his apartment has frequently been searched, telephone calls are routinely listened in on, etc. -- and where everyone else (well, Kang and Pak and some shady figures) always seem to know where he is and what he is up to. Kang, in particular, keeps crossing his path.
       Sent north, near to the Chinese border, O finds himself in considerably more lawless territory -- and in the middle of a big (and dangerous) mess. The murder of a foreign national in the Koryo Hotel back in Pyongyang is an assignment more befitting his position, but of course it's also connected with what he finds himself in the middle of. Needless to say, too, murder investigations of the North Korean-variety are hampered by all sorts of issues -- there's no crack C.S.I. team on hand here, for one, and even if there were, they'd probably be assigned to mess with the crime scene rather than accurately report what the evidence suggests happened there.
       Church plays with North Korean secrecy quite well, but the opacity of it all can get quite tiresome, especially when there are so many chance (or not quite chance) encounters with people who know just a little more than O does. It is also is a bit hard to credit that quite so much carnage -- the bodycount here is pretty high -- can pass quite this unremarked upon by the general population (or that the carnage can be quite so quickly tidied up). O's maneuvering through this murk (and carnage -- as well as the occasional knock-out blow) is quite engaging, but there's a bit too much reliance on greater powers that be and ultimately not quite enough excitement.
       Quite well written, and suggesting some of what life in North Korea might be like, A Corpse in the Koryo is a decent mystery, but a bit on the dull side.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 April 2011

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Links:

A Corpse in the Koryo: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       'James Church' is the pseudonym of someone who supposedly was once a 'Western intelligence officer'.

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© 2011 the complete review

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