James Church is the pseudonym of a former member of a western intelligence organization. Church creates an atmosphere that is almost without color. It is cold and the reader can feel it. In one book, Inspector O ( ‘O’ is a pseudonym of a sort itself) meets a foreign dignitary in a hotel in Pyongyang that is reserved for visitors. The food and the wine are good and plentiful. Later, O goes into a coffee shop to get a hot drink; he is served a cup of hot water. There is more food in Pyongyang than in the rural areas but everyone is suffering from the famine. Church makes the poverty and the cold and the hunger a part of the stories. Yet his characters a not weighed down by hopelessness. The books are police procedurals; Inspector O is a police officer like those everywhere in the world. His job is to solve crimes and he does his job as best he can with the basic tools he has available to him.
BAMBOO AND BLOOD is the third in the Inspector O series but it is a prequel beginning in the winter of 1997. North Korea is in the midst of a famine that is devastating the country. The very young and the very old are dying and only people of strong will are likely to survive until the spring. Restaurants serve hot water as the beverage to accompany meals of soup made by cooking a bit of wood in more hot water.
The country is hiding its desperation from the rest of the world so it is a great surprise to Inspector O when he is asked to play host to an Israeli agent who is able to come and go seemingly at will into a society that is a mystery to its own people.
Jeno introduces information about the death in Pakistan of the wife of a North Korean diplomat. O is assigned to investigate and told not to look at things too closely and to avoid any discussions about missiles. O knows nothing about missiles and doesn’t understand what he is being sent to investigate but suddenly he is given a passport and a plane ticket. Inspector O finds Jeno always nearby as he travels from Pyongyang, to a nearly abandoned factory in the countryside, to New York city, to Geneva. There O finds himself attached to a diplomatic mission about which he knows little, meets a Swiss security officer, ‘M. Beret’, and realizes that someone, perhaps his brother, is trying to kill him.
Inspector O is a great find. He is a simple man who lives quietly, is proud of his heritage and the memory of his deceased grandfather, a hero of the revolution. He always carries with him pieces of wood, small pieces that he uses like worry beads. “…I might as well have a piece of wood that would help me sort through the case. Something pragmatic. Elm was good that way. Most trees succumb to nonsense at some point in their lives. They get top heavy. They forget their roots. Not elms. From beginning to end, they remain stately and pragmatic.”
O could be talking about himself. He is worth meeting.