The Man with the Baltic Stare is the fourth entry in the series about Inspector O, a policeman in North Korea. The series is written pseudonymously by a former intelligence officer with experience of North Korea and North Koreans who also posts on current events and policies adopted towards that closed off country, and one of the joys of the series is not only the glimpse into its culture but into the thoughts, attitudes, and ways its citizens, government and ordinary, react. It takes us far from the stereotype of mindless automatons devoted to the leader and the cause, but this is far from its only advantage.
At least one critic has commented on how the series reminds him of the work of Raymond Chandler. This is partly because of the character of Inspector O, the first person narrator. Many authors have attempted to imitate Philip Marlowe, the wise-cracking, rebellious detective of The Big Sleep, but I don’t think this is imitation, but more like convergent evolution. It is true that both bounce around in investigations that are sprawling and confusing, with many interested parties that relate in ways and for reasons that the investigator must figure out, and that one of the major talents of both is doing just that, but where Marlowe’s imitators leave a trail of bodies (in all the novels, if I remember correctly, Marlowe himself killed just one man) and women behind them while drinking themselves into oblivion and overdoing the similes Marlow used so well, Inspector O is not a gunman, is only at a distance involved with women, and looks for a good cup of tea. He can be remarkably disrespectful to many of the powerful characters he meets, something he gets away with because of his investigative talent, which is occasionally needed, and partly because his grandfather was a general and hero of the war, and his brother, with whom he is on truly bad terms, is still a power in the party. While he occasionally wisecracks, Inspector O more often gets almost insanely (given the society in which he lives) stubborn or angry, but just like Marlowe, perhaps even more, also does things that get him into far more trouble than he would otherwise be in. The other similarity, particularly in this book, is the skill with which he describes ordinary people and events that are a joy to read even where no major plot event is happening.
In The Man with the Baltic Stare, something new is added. We begin somewhere around 2016, after O has retired and gone to live on a mountain, with instructions not to talk to anyone, and since he has had to build his own house, the hope on the part of the people who sent him there that he would not survive retirement. (Could something like this be where the retirement systems for Illinois teachers will end up? No: there aren’t enough mountains.) He has, as everyone reminds him, been out of touch when he is made to come back for one last case, and what he eventually discovers after being astounded by some of the changes around him is that the regime is at last lurching towards collapse, and the vultures, South Korea, China, somewhere in the background Russia, and even a nasty coalition of gangsters, are all circling around waiting to feed on the carcass. Each has its representatives, some in alliance, and all trying to use O, who is told to investigate a particularly nasty trunk murder in Macau where the chief suspect is someone they wont name. O spends more time dealing with the players and trying to stay alive and get back to his mountain, hoping to come across a home-grown faction, than he does solving the murder, but solve it he does, ending up in a confrontation with some of the nastiest players. Along the way he displays an intensified stubbornness which is explained part way through the book.
This is a mystery, a book of espionage and intrigue, and a piece of speculative fiction by someone who knows the country well, and it is written at an even higher level than the previous entries. Characters recur from other novels, which is a good excuse to suggest going back and reading the previous entries, starting with The Corpse in the Koryo, but that isn’t necessary. Another entry in the series, featuring O’s nephew but with O still a character, called A Drop of Chinese Blood, is due in November, and I can’t wait, partly because O’s nephew is an official in the Chinese intelligence service just across the border from China.All the books in this series are worthwhile, but I think this one is most so.