NEW YORK — The hero, a police inspector, prowls a city known more for its political malevolence than its street crime. If you read the local newspapers, you could think it’s a city with almost no crime at all. There have been no murders reported there for years, no bank robberies, no muggings, no rapes.
The city is Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, which has long hidden so many realities beneath layers of propaganda and isolation.
The hero is Inspector O, a policeman who knows those realities. And so, in many ways, does the policeman’s creator, the bearded man in the crowded Manhattan restaurant who calls himself James Church.
Church doesn’t want you to know his real name, his nationality or the name of the organization where he worked for so many years. All he’ll say is that he was raised in California, that he spent decades watching North Korea as an intelligence officer for a Western country, and that he traveled there dozens of times.
Church has also, in novels about a tormented Pyongyang police inspector who loves his country despite its many failings, found a way to write about the country he studied for so long.
Inspector O — his first name is never given; his surname is common in Korea — is a hard-boiled, old-school investigator, a Raymond Chandler character trying to do the right thing in a brutal world. But he is also quick to defend that world, especially when outsiders criticize it.
“We know how the world sees us,” he tells a Swiss intelligence official in “Bamboo and Blood,” the third Inspector O novel. “But we are not as weak as people think — or hope.”
Inspector O is “a good, solid police detective who just wants to do his work,” said Church, whose sixth book in the series, “The Gentleman from Japan,” will be released late this year. “He really doesn’t care about politics. He knows it gets in the way, that it’s annoying. He knows that sometimes he has to bow to it.”
But O still refuses to wear one of the small lapel pins, decorated with portraits of North Korea’s leaders that are ubiquitous in the country.
Church’s books often center around outsiders — an Israeli spy, a Scottish policeman, that Swiss intelligence guy — thrust into a North Korea they constantly misunderstand.
“I couldn’t pretend that I was writing from the inside. I couldn’t pretend that I was a North Korean,” said Church, whose first Inspector O novel was released a decade ago, and whose work has been warmly received by critics. Now retired from government work, he was in New York recently for a visit. “What interested me was the point at which the North Korean reality and our reality meet. Because I have a lot of experience with that, and that’s where it illuminates what they think.”
The world has spent years misunderstanding the North Korean reality, Church says, reducing it to cliches of goose-stepping soldiers, brain-washed people, and dictators waiting for the chance to reduce the world to a smoldering, radioactive pulp.
But much of what Inspector O encounters would be familiar anywhere.
Church’s North Korea is a place of squabbling relatives, office bullies, bureaucratic turf wars and bitter spouses. It’s a place where most people quietly go along with the government, but a few find ways to quietly push back. It’s a place where politics is a constant presence, something to be extremely wary of, but where most people are more worried about office politics or troublesome children.
“We’ve seen time after time, when authoritarian countries fall, that people pretty much live normal lives,” he said. “Some aspects of life are exaggerated in North Korea in many ways. But I think that when the end finally comes and we understand more fully how people live their lives, we’ll be surprised.”
Still, North Koreans do face myriad dangers, from arrests by the country’s web of security agencies to powerful bureaucrats who can upend a person’s life in a moment.
“There are always storm clouds on the horizon,” said Church. “There is a thunderstorm that could break at any moment.”
O regularly hints at those storms.
“We all knew that we were drifting, and we knew where,” the policeman reflects in “Bamboo and Blood,” which takes place during North Korea’s brutal mid-1990s famine. “A nation of shriveled leaves floating on a doomed river toward the falls. A winter of endless sorrow.”
Church’s real name and his background are widely known in the small community of North Korea watchers, where he is seen as one of the most insightful analysts of the isolated nation. Inspector O also has plenty of fans.
“If you want to understand North Korea then you need to read Inspector O,” said Michael Madden, who has spent years studying the North Korean leadership. Church “is giving you the conversations that these people have, the bureaucracy there and just the North Korean mood and attitude. He gets that culture. Not many people do.”
Church also understands that, beyond the propaganda, North Korea pulls powerfully at its people, including Inspector O.
“We had something to believe in, a way to order existence,” O says angrily in one book, when a South Korean derides North Korea’s entire history. “Maybe people didn’t have much, most of them had very little, but for practically all of those years they felt they belonged to something.”
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