James Church is the pseudonym of a former Western intelligence officer who has spent time in Asia. He is also the author of four previous detective novels featuring a North Korean policeman “Inspector O”. The sixth in the series is A Drop of Chinese Blood.
Jake Needham guessed that the Inspector O series had ended, and he was almost right. The Man with the Baltic Stare was meant to be the last. I told my editor that it was the end, and I was not kidding. O was growing old, I was growing old, and the book business was in a tailspin. I couldn’t kill off O, of course. That would have been too cruel; besides, a number of people said they would never speak to me again if I did.
So what happened? The game changer was when a high-level official in an unnamed government came around the table after a meeting, sat down next to me, and said, “I hear the fourth book is the last one. Don’t do this to us.”
Even more to the point, I needed renovations on the house.
To my surprise, Inspector O had emerged quickly when I started writing the first book, A Corpse in the Koryo. Apparently, I’d known him for quite awhile. During my time in intelligence work, he must have been always nearby. Clearly, when I was in Macau many years ago, O was there, which must be why I could hear his laughter when I wrote The Man with the Baltic Stare, which takes place in that weirdly wonderful city.
It would be too cute to say that O has a mind of his own. I am, after all, his creator. He dances to my tune -- except that at two in the morning, after five or six hours at the word processor, I don’t really know whose the tune is, mine or his. He opens doors I hadn’t seen, runs across characters I didn’t know existed, instantly comes up with wisecracks that in real life I could only manufacture hours after the fact.
In 2010, of course, there was a fly in the ointment. How to jump from what was meant to be the last in a series to one more story?
The nephew! Anyone who has read Baltic Stare realizes I left an escape hatch at the end. Subconsciously? Unconsciously? Who knows? Besides which, a title had occurred to me – A Drop of Chinese Blood. And when a title has occurred to me, I am a dead duck. I have to write the book.
As it happens, bringing O out of North Korea and changing the narrator wasn’t easy. The latter meant O’s internal monologue was no longer available. I wasn’t even sure how he looked from the outside. I ended up saved by a friend who once while we were at a Pyongyang flower show had suggested that perhaps Inspector O had met Nero Wolfe. I discarded the idea at the time, but now it floated back to me, a lifeboat appearing in the South Pacific just before the sharks get you. Whether Rex Stout ever thought of moving Archie from Manhattan to the Chinese-North Korean border I have no idea, but you have to admit, it is an interesting thought.
Published 05 December 2012
Minotaur. Hbk £17.99