James Church, A Corpse at the Koryo (2006)

A police inspector is ordered by his superiors to go to a certain road at a certain time with a camera they have supplied and take a picture of the car that will be passing by. He obeys without question but nonetheless the picture fails, the camera didn’t have a battery. Now the policeman is in deep trouble.

Where does this take place? Don’t place any bet, this is North Korea. Now that mysteries have made us readers familiar with Iceland (Indridason), Sweden (Henning Mankell and Sjowall-Wahloo), China (Qiu Xiaolong) or Thailand (John Burdett), the new frontier gets even further away. Be ready for some culture shock, because North Korea is as foreign to us as Planet Mars, at least!

I hope Church’s information is accurate because I totally believe in his portrait of a Kafkaesque society, where everyone is spied upon for the most arbitrary reasons, where there are meaningless rules for anything including crossing streets, where decades of penury make people do with very antiquated means, but where people still try to make a living with normal jobs and concerns.

If I wanted to tell this book’s whole story and give away the ending, I’m not sure I could. This is more of a “noir” than a mystery, more a road trip than a closed room mystery. The inspector tries to escape his problems but where to hide in a prison state? Ironically, the terror state means that no door can protect anyone’s privacy, but this is a closed country mystery behind the borders’ high walls.

When Danielle was listing spy books a few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was starting this one and that set in North Korea and written by someone with a pen name who used to work in the intelligence, it was bound to include some spying. I didn’t know how right I was. Without reveling anything of the plot, the secret police, the intelligence service and the military all play a dark role in the story.

This is not a book that puts you in a good mood. Mr. Smithereens was put off by the cynicism of the main character’s’ voice and by the paranoia of the spying game. It is a risk. But the window it offers on North Koreans’ daily life makes it totally worth it.

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