A Drop of Chinese Blood by James Church

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A Drop of Chinese Blood by James Church

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A spin off from former Western intelligence worker, James Church's highly regarded Inspector O series, this is a satirical look at the complex relationships between China, Mongolia, North and South Korea. Expect to be kept in the dark as much as the characters are with regard to plot development.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 304 Date: December 2012
Publisher: Minotaur Books
ISBN: 9780312550639

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Set on the Chinese border with North Korea and in Mongolia, James Church's A Drop of Chinese Blood offers a complex crime mystery of lies and deception, although for much of the book it's not entirely clear what the crime is. I was drawn to the book by the author's background. James Church is a pseudonym for an American former intelligence officer whose working life was spent in North Korea and the surrounding area, so he undoubtedly knows his subject. His previous books have featured the North Korean Inspector O, and while he gets another outing here, this time he has moved beyond Korea to China to have O residing with his chief of Chinese Ministry of State Security nephew, Major Bing.

There is plenty to admire in the book. There are shades of both Sam Marlowe and Hercule Poirot in the relationship between Bing and O, with plenty of pithy, wry observations and comments and the lack of trust between China, North and South Korea and Mongolia is well illustrated. However, while it's possible that if you have read and enjoyed the previous Inspector O series that you may like this book more than I did, I found the balance between the roles of Bing and O difficult to relate to and their conversations appeared to me to be less than naturalistic. Without having read the previous books however, to me it seemed that while Church has 'given' this book to Major Bing, Inspector O is still struggling to let go and Bing isn't able to exert enough influence on the narrative to surpass his charismatic house guest.

What also got in the way of my enjoyment of this book is my personal gripe over crime fiction where the reader has next to no chance of working out anything that is going on until a final reveal that presents information that the reader could not possibly have deduced. In fact, this is rather compounded by the fact that the crimes themselves are somewhat nebulous until the end.

To some extent this adds to the reading experience as the reader is just as much in the dark as the characters about what is going on, but to my mind, the best crime fiction allows the reader to be one page ahead of the characters' knowledge and this is certainly not the case here. Like most crime fiction it's plot driven rather than character driven, although the reader does have a certain sympathy to both Bing and the irascible and enigmatic O, but this means that the lack of clarity of what the poor characters are supposed to be doing makes the direction of the book difficult to follow. It may well be that there are intelligence officers that race around without knowing what they are doing but just following orders and hunches, but that doesn't necessarily make for a straightforward read.

My other gripe is that he introduces potentially fascinating characters, like 'the stunningly beautiful Madame Fang' and the contortionist Tuya, whose role in the story is never apparent. The result is that the book works well as a comic caper but less convincingly as a mystery, which is how it is presented.

Despite these reservations though, what remains is a frequently amusing and satirical look at Asian political manoeuvring with national and personal paranoia to the fore. There's probably more than a grain of truth in the national distrust and trading of assets shown here which makes for interesting and often entertaining reading, even if the lack of clarity over what the plot is can be frustrating at times.

Our thanks to the kind people at Minotaur Books for sending us a copy of this book.

For more North Korean-based fiction, the excellent The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson is recommended while for a very different type of spy story Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan is well worth reading.

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Buy A Drop of Chinese Blood by James Church at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Drop of Chinese Blood by James Church at Amazon.com.


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