”Over the years, completely out of channels, a classification system for cases had grown up among the sector-level inspectors. The Ministry often sent down memos warning against the use of this unsanctioned system, only reinforcing suspicions that it was pretty close to accurate. Category one cases were simple enough--those we were expected to investigate and, where possible solve. Category two cases were those we were expected to be seen as investigating but not to solve. Category three cases were those we were to avoid--leave every stone unturned. In fact, for a category three case, it was best not even to record that there were any stones, No records, no files, no nothing.”They are always watching.
We all live with various levels of paranoia. In the United States our cell phone conversations are monitored, our visual images are captured almost everywhere we go, and if there is any part of our life that is not observable by the government there is always a little old lady, with the twitchy curtains, living in every neighborhood just waiting for someone to ask her what she knows. We all work with a certain number of people that are always looking for something to report to a higher authority or at least some tidbit that can be turned into an interesting piece of malicious gossip. Now take that times a hundred and you have Pyongyang, North Korea. There are over 3,000,000 people in the capital of North Korea and when you look at the cityscape it looks like well... a city, but it is actually split up into all these districts that have layers upon layers of various levels of authority so complex that the people making up those levels/layers are often confused about who is really in charge of what.
The one thing that everyone understands is that it is the duty of every single North Korean citizen to keep an eye on their neighbors, family, friends, and co-workers. If there is someone in your district that you don’t know, report it immediately or you will be answering questions as to why you didn’t.
One benefit of this system is that crime is almost impossible to get away with unless of course it falls under Category three.
When Inspector O is asked to investigate a bank robbery, he has a feeling it must be a category three or at least a category two because bank robberies simply do not happen in North Korea. The bank manager is a wasp-waisted beautiful Kazakhstani/Korean woman with a Scottish (British) passport. Why she is in North Korea is a head scratcher indeed? If it doesn’t make sense it is definitely cause for suspicion. He tries to ask her some questions about the robbery, but her response makes it clear that he should start thinking of this as a category three.”If you start harassing me I’ll file a complaint that will dump you in a pig farm so far away you’ll have to check a map each time you take a crap.”
Goodness me, so she might be beautiful with that tiny waist that is inspiring so much daydreaming in the mind of Inspector O, but she is no lady. She is a muddled puzzle piece that will defy placement in the scope of the picture until nearly the end of the book. The threat of the pig farm is a real one. When someone messes up by saying the wrong thing to the wrong person or creates too many problems for someone that is better connected than they are that person might well find themselves “volunteering” for farm work. The pin Inspector O is supposed to wear all the time, but it never leaves his desk drawer.
Inspector O works a bit outside the system. He has more latitude than the average citizen given that his grandfather was a true hero of the war. As the book progresses and he finds himself strapped to a chair taking hits from an ash baton, wielded by people from some obscure branch of the security hierarchy, he realizes that his grandfather’s heroism might be wearing a little too thin to continue to shield him.
Wood is a continual theme throughout this book. Inspector O has an affinity for wood and collects the bits and pieces that come his way during an investigation. He has plans to build bookshelves that will never be built, but drawing the blueprints are just a way for him to escape the daily grind, to focus his mind on something other than the heavy handed bureaucracies of his country and to not think about the closet sized confines of his room.I fished in my pockets for some wood and came up with a piece of walnut. I held it up with what must have been a look of surprise on my face.
“Something wrong, Inspector?”
“This is walnut.”
“If you say so.”
“I don’t know why I’m even carrying it around. There’s a certain smugness to walnut that you can feel.”
“I hadn’t realized.”
“My grandfather used to look at a piece of walnut and say. ‘Ugly.’ He claimed walnut needed discipline, Too many people say. ‘Oh how beautiful,’ every time they see walnut burl, and they ended up spoiling the wood, that’s what he thought.”
The plot is convoluted and I found myself as confused as Inspector O with this cast of characters and their role in ongoing concerns: a Scottish “investigator” James Boswell, a Russian who sells blackmarket panty hose, the man in the brown suit with the ash baton, the Kazakhstani/Korean woman with the tiny waist, a blind monk, a dead gangster who wasn’t a gangster, a man with a long scar on his cheek that is most assuredly a gangster, a restaurant owner who keeps dropping hints to be asked out, an undercover security woman with the almost moon face that makes O’s hands sweaty, two German businessmen, and a visiting dignitary that may or may not be targeted for assassination. "People think that the truth is bulky, like a big package. More often, it comes in small drops, like rain from the eaves. You can listen to it all night long, but in the morning when you go outside, there might not be anything there."
“James Church” (pseudonym) pulls it all together in the end. Church is a mystery in himself. ”He is a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia. He has wandered through Korea for years. No matter what hat he wore, Church says, he ran across Inspector O many times.”James Church
Church really does an excellent job making the reader feel the suffocating atmosphere of a totalitarian state. This is the second book in the series and like the first book I could feel the compression on my brain, the need to guard my tongue at all times, and the weight of so many judgmental eyes waiting for me to do something worth reporting. Inspector O lives in an apartment the size of a closet and the landlady is the eyes and ears of building. Every conversation regardless of how inane is a cause for worry. Questions are like bullets. Your answers are blades to force you to compromise and to elicit further confessions. The state is willing to use anything they can as a wedge issue. They govern by fear and blackmail. Travel is almost impossible and when you do travel you better have the proper paperwork, because you will be stopped over and over again by those layers of oppressive security that keep everyone “safe” and take away every last scrap of freedom. You are only free in your own mind and when there don’t let the pleasure show on your face.
I hate to admit this, but Dennis “The Worm” Rodman’s recent embarrassing visit to North Korea prompted me to remember this series. It has been several years since I read the first one and I certainly will not take as long in the future to queue the rest of the books up to read.