Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church

(Updated to say that I am happy to report that despite my own problems obtaining a copy a few weeks ago, A Corpse in the Koryo now seems to be readily available. Grab one while it's easy to get. These days, you never know.)

I don't know how it is for other people who work in bookstores. Sometimes it seems to me that they always read everything they plan to read in a timely way, and can recommend new titles in their chosen areas of interest with ease. I imagine that they get off work, grab a quick snack and then go home and plow through a couple hundred pages before the evening is over.

For me, it's more hit and miss. I know about a lot more books that I'd like to read than I am ever going to get around to, and although that's not necessarily a wholly bad thing, being a bookseller adds an extra pang to it. Here's an example of why.

I noticed James Church's first novel, A Corpse in the Koryo, as soon as it came in in paperback. It had a distinctive cover, and I saw that it was set in Korea. I don't think I noticed that it was about North Korea. Somehow, I got it into my head that this was one of those travelogue mysteries that can be quite fun to read from time to time, but really are in a way a form of cozy. So it fell down the "so many books, so little time" list. It wasn't until I saw an article on Slate about the series that I realized that these books were likely to be one of the more penetrating looks into North Korea that we are likely to have in the fictional world for awhile. After looking at the article, I thought, great, I'll read the first one and if I like it, I'll get some in for the store and start selling it.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. The book had become unavailable through the usual channels and I had to get it from a used book dealer. What's upsetting about this is that as the fourth Inspector O novel, The Man With the Baltic Stare,  comes out, the first in the series is not readily available to people. As any mystery reader knows, this matters in a series. (A commenter has since posted in to say that they found it on Minotaur's website, so please try that, if you are interested in the book) 

In case you think this is a fault of the first book, it isn't. Church (which is a psuedonym used by a former western intelligence officer) comes out of the gate strong. He's got a great character in Inspector O, and he conveys his setting beautifully. The mystery is well-plotted, and the pieces all come together. All that was missing was the publicity team that might have gotten it out there in a substantial way.

What was personally most important to me, though, was the shattering of my own images. We've all seen the perfectly choreographed mass displays and the stories of detentions of outsiders. Naively, I've assumed that the people have simply been brainwashed and know no other way. What Church is asserting is that this is far from the case, and that the North Koreans live under a totalitarian regime in much the same way you and I would live under that regime if we were so unfortunate as to have to do so. We would avoid what we could, endure what we couldn't and live an inner life that was, pardon the stereotype, inscrutable. If you want to know something of that inner life, read one of the beautiful poem fragments that Church starts his sections with. Here's one:

At dawn, the hills wake from the mist, 
One row, then another,
Beyond is loneliness
Endless as the distant peaks.

-O Sung Hui (1327-1358) 


  1. Oh! That is beautiful.

    Love that this is a human story, that the politics & mystery are wrapped up in that. Will keep an eye out for it!

  2. Great. I'm already giving my copy to a friend, and am on to the second one, Hidden Moon myself, so slowly but surely we will spread the word...

  3. I dont understand why you say that the book is unavailable "through the usual channels"? The publisher has it in its catalog and on its website. I see it in my local mystery shop. Are you talking about the hardcover? You're showing the paperback...

  4. Anonymous,I'll be happy if you're right. Maybe they've made it available since I looked a few weeks ago, based on the new book. I know the distributors didn't have it, and that's usually a bad sign, but I can try Minotaur tomorrow for the store and see what happens. And I will correct it here if I can get it.

    As a more general principle, though, I will say that I have seen the pattern of the beginning of a series becoming unavailable just as the series heats up a few times before.