Written by James Church — James Church is the nom-de-plume of a writer who served for many years as a diplomat in the Far East. He has written four previous novels set in the region, introducing readers to the cynical and devious North Korean intelligence agent, Inspector O. This latest novel also features the Inspector, but the central character is his nephew, Major Bing.
Major Bing is a sardonic policeman of Korean origin, who has been posted to the far north east region of China to run the agency in Yanji, near the border with North Korea. He is a reluctant landlord to his uncle, who we learn has slipped over the border with a history of death, duplicity and deception written all over his CV. Principally because Bing refuses to take back-handers from local movers and shakers, he has a mounting pile of bills on his desk. When the mysterious Madam Du asks his uncle to investigate the apparent disappearance of her father, and offers a fat envelope of currency as a down-payment, Bing is anxious for Inspector O to focus his considerable powers of intellect on the problem.
Meanwhile, Bing’s predecessor as bureau chief appears to have defected to North Korea. After another alluring femme fatale – the strangely named Madame Fang – makes a sudden visit and an equally rapid disappearance, Bing and his uncle are dispatched to the wilds of Mongolia to search for a missing state seal, which the state security chiefs in Beijing dread falling into the wrong hands. At the very least, there can be very few crime thrillers to have part of their narrative set in the mean streets of Ulan Bator!
In a multi-stranded plot involving common criminals, fake noodle chefs, triple agents, and counter intelligence coups, Bing finds he can trust no-one and believe nothing unless he has seen it with his own eyes. It is slightly irritating that when all is resolved in the last few pages, we find that things have taken place which we could not possibly have known about from what we have been told in the story. The long conversations between Bing and his uncle are cleverly written, with many a sharp one-liner, but the old Korean intelligence agent is so roundabout and circuitous in his comments that it often requires a major intellectual effort to connect his elliptical statements to the direction we think the plot is going in.
This is not a book for those who like undiluted action and drama, but if you like enigma heaped upon nuance, layered over ambiguity, and then sandwiched between obfuscation and innuendo, then this is for you. Another reviewer likens Mr Church to John Le Carre. I can see the similarity, but the first person musings of Major Bing are constantly ironic and self-deprecating, and it seems neither Bing nor his infuriating uncle has a moral compass at all, save for their own self-preservation.
Yes, there are flaws but Church clearly knows the region and has a good ear for dialogue. He challenges the reader’s attention on every page, and this book is far from being a comfort read. Perhaps style occasionally triumphs over substance, and I just wish that Bing and Inspector O were not so profoundly cynical. Being world weary is good, but I do think it needs to be leavened with just a hint of knowing right from wrong.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars