“The Gentleman from Japan” by James Church (Minotaur Books, 275 pages, $25.99)
The Inspector O series of novels by James Church are as mysterious as the man who writes them. These books straddle that murky parallel between crime fiction and espionage novels. His latest, “The Gentleman from Japan,” submerges readers in intrigues that are almost indecipherable in their opaqueness.
“James Church” is the pen name and pseudonym for a long-time intelligence officer who has spent many years operating in the vicinity of North Korea. Inspector O, his fictional sleuth, is a retired North Korean police inspector. In this sixth book in the series, Inspector O is living quietly with his nephew in a city in China along the border with North Korea.
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O’s nephew, Major Bing, occupies a post with the Chinese Ministry of State Security. Bing is the son of O’s brother, who made an appearance in the first novel. O didn’t get along too well with his late brother, a man who had seemed slavishly loyal to the North Korean regime.
O didn’t even realize he had a nephew until the fourth book — he’s also O’s only living relative. Major Bing and Inspector O maintain an uncomfortable kinship. The retired O spends his days building bookshelves and being an annoyance to his nephew.
The previous book, “A Drop of Chinese Blood,” was told from the viewpoint of Major Bing. The narration in “The Gentleman from Japan” gets tricky. Bing starts the story. Then it switches to Inspector’s O’s narration. Ultimately it shifts back again to Major Bing.
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As the book opens, Bing is investigating some befuddling murders. Soon after that, his uncle is dragged out of retirement to go undercover to try to determine how a company in Spain is planning to smuggle equipment that could be used in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The equipment will be smuggled with fake documents identifying it as machinery for manufacturing dumplings. Don’t laugh — apparently equipment from Spain has been shipped to North Korea by employing similar ruses. These arms merchants don’t care what they sell or to whom they sell it, as long as they get paid: “Whoever wants a machine, they must have a reason. And if they have the cash, they have a machine.”
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O’s undercover identity is that of a Japanese gangster; the “gentleman from Japan.” I have interviewed the man known as James Church several times. He chuckled when he told me he had preferred another title for his book, the first one set in our present time. He wanted to name it “Death by Dumpling.”
O travels to Spain and Portugal. At times this reviewer had doubts O would survive as he’s taken prisoner then drugged by his captors.
Meanwhile, back in China, his nephew is dealing with a corrupt mayor, a bombing, unsolved murders, and the eventual realization that there’s a connection between those things and his uncle’s quest for “dumpling machines.” If you love a taut, clever mystery, don’t miss this one.
You can hear my latest interview with James Church on Sunday morning at 10:30 on WYSO (91.3 FM).