8 July 2013

Review: BAMBOO AND BLOOD, James Church

  • Published in 2010 by Minotaur Books
  • ISBN 978-0-312-60129-4-51399
  • #3 in the Inspector O. series
  • 294 pages
  • library book
Synopsis (Fantastic Fiction)

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, 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 finding out 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 sparse, lyrical prose guides readers 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.

My take

This book and I didn't easily rub shoulders. I found the "sparse, lyrical prose" hard to read and the action hard to sort out.  Eventually, just over half way through, things began to jell, but even so I am not sure that, most of the time, I knew what was happening.

I kept feeling that I was missing out on understanding some events and references because I have not read the first two books in the Inspector O series (see the list of titles below).

Inspector O is sent to join a North Korean delegation conducting negotiations in Geneva. The delegation resents his presence and he is given a cryptic message to pass on, but he never sees his orders in writing. This all adds to the mystery of what he is supposed to be doing, and, for me at least, confusion about the various threads of the plot. I guess I could probably make more sense of it all, if I read the book again, but the inclination is not there. What is clear is that a number of people in Geneva believe Inspector O. is a very influential member of the North Korean secret service, but others are constantly suggesting he should go home.

The book gives a depressing view of North Korea in winter 1997-8, where food is scarce.
    The next morning, we were in my office, and Pak seemed a little ill at ease. It wasn't unusual these days. All of us were that way - a little at ease all the time. Bad stories were coming in from the country side. Here in the capital, people were disappearing from offices, food was scarce, heart was random, electricity was unpredictable and even when there was some, it didn't last very long. No one pretended things weren't bad, though we didn't talk a lot about it. The question was whether we would get through it.
North Korea is well equipped with military weapons and selling missiles appears to be the main purpose of the Geneva delegation. The Americans want some say in who these weapons are sold to. The situation gives rise to whether the North Korean rural population would not rather have food than the national security that the missiles provide.

This is one of those books that I really haven't enjoyed but the fault is probably mine.

My rating: 3.7

About the author

James Church is the pseudonym of the author of four detective novels featuring a North Korean policeman, "Inspector O".Church is identified on the back cover of his novels as "a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia". He grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the United States and was over 60 years old in 2009.His "Inspector O" novels have been well-received, being noted by Asia specialists for offering "an unusually nuanced and detailed portrait" of North Korean society. A Korea Society panel praised the first book in the series for its realism and its ability to convey "the suffocating atmosphere of a totalitarian state". A panelist as well as The Independent's and the Washington Post's reviewers compared the protagonist to Arkady Renko, the Soviet chief inspector in Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, for providing "a vivid window into a mysterious country".

Inspector O
1. A Corpse in the Koryo (2006)
2. Hidden Moon (2007)
3. Bamboo and Blood (2008)
4. The Man with the Baltic Stare (2010)


Margot Kinberg said...

Kerrie - Thanks for the honest appraisal. I may give this series a try just to stretch myself, but I think I'll wait a bit...

TracyK @ Bitter Tea and Mystery said...

Kerrie, your reaction is interesting. My husband and I read the first Inspector O novel and loved it, and continued the series because of that. But all of the rest of the books disappointed us. We felt like we must be missing something because they were so critically acclaimed.


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