Idiosyncratic, offbeat and intriguing, the Inspector O series wraps a murder-mystery in political intrigue with a captivating central character at its core. This is the third novel in the Inspector O series. New readers are advised to start with ‘A Corpse in the Koryo’ rather than trying to get to grips with O’s character and his particularly peculiar situation all at once. The earlier books have been rather more traditional whodunnits, set in communist North Korea with O as an eccentric detective who solves mysteries, even when they slither into the perilous territory of state security.
In ‘Bamboo and Blood’, author James Church shifts the focus of the story away from ‘interesting international detective’ and deep into the territory of espionage and tradecraft. There is a murder to investigate and a mystery to solve, but these are the incidental interludes in the plot. ‘Bamboo and Blood’ is a Cold War spy story, and the political position of North Korea in the late 1990s has ceased to be the backdrop to the action: the political position of North Korea IS the story.
Inspector O works in the Ministry of People’s Security, usually investigating ‘normal’ crime; theft, assault, so on. O has a flimsy layer of protection against the menacing machinery of the State Security agency, being the grandson of a hero of the people. However, his best defence when confronted with the attack dogs of the thought police is to be good at his job, solve crimes, and to subdue his intemperate responses with philosophical debate on the nature of trees. O has studied trees and wood all his life. He carries wooden pieces in his pockets, and the different types of wood provide comfort and security for him in times of stress. The title of this book reflects O’s relationship with wood – however, bamboo is NOT wood and must bend.
The book is set in the winter 1997 when Korea was in the grip of an appalling famine. The state is bankrupt; electricity is rationed, there’s nothing left to burn for heat. O and his supervisor may go out for dinner, but all they can order is bark soup. The first third of the novel is set in this bitterly cold and miserable existence, where even O’s cheerful optimism and sanguine nature starts to fray. O is instructed to investigate the background of a missing woman, and then he’s told to babysit a foreign visitor.
None of this makes sense – and then his life becomes even more complex as a person from his past reappears and O is then tasked with attending a diplomatic mission in Switzerland. He doesn’t know why, but O is being maneuverer into strategic situations with global consequences. Like a ball sent flying around a pinball circuit, O bounces between Mossad agents and the Swiss Secret Service. He’s deflected by his brother, his Ministry contact and a man he once left for dead. O navigates an extremely uncertain path, reflecting the conflicted nature of his masters’ regime – like the diplomats themselves he is berated for making no progress, and then criticised again for trying to produce results.
Author James Church has certainly succeeded in creating a fictionalised representation of a bewildering political situation, where no one is quite sure what or who they’re working for, or which outcome is preferable. Church is a master at writing dialogue at cross-purposes, where both parties could be having a conversation across slightly different dimensions. The result is sometimes bitingly comic, and sometimes bitterly sad. It’s also as confusing as can be; we only know as much as O does and half the time we don’t know the half of what O understands or experiences. So the narrative feels fragmented and unpredictable; light on description and long on dialogue. A lot like real life, in fact.
So ‘Bamboo and Blood’ works on many levels, some more successful than others. James Church has distilled his own experience as a diplomat in the far east into fiction, and his portrayal of North Korean society and its political system is fascinating. The character of Inspector O is a splendid creation, quietly quirky but solid and dependable. Church portrays the spiralling weirdness of low level espionage with witty disdain, so O is rubbish at tradecraft, yet spends much of this novel catching trains where he doesn’t meet people, decoding messages at dead letter drops, and so on.
Yet it’s hard to finish this novel and feel completely satisfied. I was pretty certain that some significant events had sneaked past me, and that I hadn’t quite understood all the plot lines. It’s also hard to categorise ‘Bamboo and Blood’. It’s not a detective story, but it’s not a modern espionage thriller, either. There’s very little running, shouting, car chasing or gunplay. Jason Bourne would be completely out of place; Alec Leamas would be right at home.
‘Bamboo and Blood’ harks back to the heyday of the cold war spy story, when Le Carre wrote sparse but brilliant novels, and where the important moments of the story were never spelled out but subtly implied. So give yourself time to read and digest this story; it’s not a by-the-numbers mystery where you can count up the clues and come up with the killer.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason