Bamboo and Blood

A mystery novel offers a rare glimpse into life in North Korea.

Bamboo and Blood By James Church St. Martin’s Minotaur 304 pp., $23.95

Inspector O, the central character in Bamboo and Blood, is a police detective forged in the familiar mold of Sam Spade. He is stubborn in the pursuit of the truth, refusing to back off even when self-preservation would dictate a more prudent course.

Like Dashiell Hammett’s fictional private eye, Inspector O is a tough, wisecracking loner. He has an eye for the ladies, but they pass in and out of his life without lingering long. Also like Spade, Inspector O weaves his way through a world of corruption and power while somehow retaining a crusty idealism.

That, however, is where the familiarity ends.

Inspector O practices his trade in what must be the most exotic location for a police procedural: North Korea.A charter member of the “axis of evil,” North Korea ranks as the most isolated nation on the planet, a relic of the cold war that has somehow survived the advance of global consumerism.

In the minds of most Westerners, North Korea is a menacing place, nuclear-armed and ruled by a family dynasty portrayed in comic-book clichés of evil. In “Bamboo and Blood,” the reader is offered a very different window into life in North Korea. Here, human beings, not cartoon characters, people the streets and the hallways of power.

This is hardly a workers’ paradise. Ambition, corruption, and even greed can trigger everything from murder to auto-theft rings.

The North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Il, barely makes an appearance. But patriotism and morality still move men (and women), not least Inspector O himself, in this North Korea.

Fluid writing and deft use of detail add credibility to this glimpse behind North Korea’s wall of isolation. It also does not hurt that the author, James Church, is a former Western intelligence officer writing under a nom de plume.

I became acquainted with Church before he took up his fictional pen. He was – and remains, in his other life – one of the most respected analysts of North Korea in the Western intelligence community, with extensive experience both inside and outside that country.

Church eschews the cheap didacticism of many spy novels. He avoids the eccentric North Korean leader, images of whom constitute the sum total of most readers’ knowledge of that country.

“That can pretty much doom any story set in Pyongyang, especially one that tries to take even a small step out of the stereotypes,” he told me in an e-mail interview.

“Blood and Bamboo” is the third, and perhaps best, of what has become a stunningly good series of sleuthing tales. The series opened with “Corpse in the Koryo,” when the Korean cop tackled the murder of a foreigner in Pyongyang’s main hotel for foreign visitors.

In “Hidden Moon,” Inspector O needed to solve the mystery of Pyongyang’s first bank robbery.

“Bamboo and Blood,” set as a prequel to the first novel in the series, takes place in the bleakest of times, a winter in the late 1990s when North Korea suffered a horrendous famine, the symptom of a system in severe crisis. Black humor about eating tree bark invades a frank conversation between Inspector O and his boss, friend, and protector, Chief Inspector Pak.

On Inspector O’s beat things feel different. “The work gangs were smaller, and nobody spoke when I walked by. Sometimes, one or two would follow me with dull eyes, too weak or dispirited to move their heads. I had the feeling I was moving past ghosts.”

Inspector O’s investigations often move into the shadowy world of espionage as the trail leads to foreigners, either as victims or perpetrators of crime. In “Bamboo and Blood,” he crosses more deeply into that territory.

The death of a North Korean diplomat’s wife in Pakistan takes Inspector O to New York and then to Geneva, where he becomes entangled in plots by rival North Korean factions.

Inspector O becomes the intermediary for a secret Israeli effort to bribe North Korea not to sell its missiles to the Middle East, a little known but true interlude in the many failed efforts by the West at dealmaking with the North Koreans.

Through all this intrigue, the constant in Church’s storytelling is Inspector O himself. Plot takes a decided, and delightful, backseat to character.

And for the author, the whimsical Inspector O has taken on a life of his own. “I find out new things about Inspector O all the time,” says Church. “Readers do, too, I would imagine.”
For this reader, waiting to find out what happens next to the dogged Inspector O has become a constant of my own.

Daniel Sneider, a former foreign correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, is the associate director of Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

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