Saturday, December 03, 2011

MR. KILL by Martin Limón: 7th in Korean DMZ Series (1970s)

Investigators George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, assigned to the Criminal Investigation Division of the U.S. 8th Army in Korea in the "early seventies," represent America to the Koreans around them. Round eyed, big nosed, very tall, hairy of skin (like monkeys) -- that's how they appear to the people around them, much like any other Yank on hand in this time before tourism has much of a role in the divided nation.

Unfortunately, that's the same set of descriptors that Sueño and Bascom pick up from observers of crimes. And as MR. KILL opens, they're tackling one of the nastiest situations possible, one that's quickly antagonizing the Koreans around them: It appears that an American G.I. has just brutally raped a young woman on a train -- a woman traveling with two small children, who are terrified by what's just happened to their mother. The investigative team has solved a lot of crimes, in spite of getting themselves in plenty of trouble along the way (booze, women, a marked inability to kiss up to supervisors). Now they need to use their skills, and fast. Every hour of "unsolved" on this one means another hour of public anger, mounting and seething.
Behind us, on the overhead ramparts, a crowd gathered, people waiting for other trains. Some of the civilians murmured loudly about Miguk-nom, base American louts. Somehow they'd gotten wind of what had happened.
It's George Seuño who tells the tale, which is a good thing -- way too often, his partner is angrily drunk, or shacked up with a sweetie. Poor Miss Kim in the office is still heartbroken from breaking up with Ernie. This time, though, Ernie's not seeking a Korean "yobo" to keep him company. Instead, he's found a liaison with Marnie, leader of an all-female country-western band touring the U.S. bases. Coincidentally, the "girls" have complained about thefts and peeping Toms on the tour, so George and Ernie get assigned to chase that problem, too.

All too soon, their Korean law enforcement counterparts learn about the demands on George and Ernie's time. Faced with a horrifying criminal act, and a G.I criminal whose actions seem to be escalating further, the national forces can't grasp how protection for a girl band could compete. Maybe Ernie's the only one happy about the extra tasks involved!

If you've been reading Limón's engrossing and perceptive series, none of this will surprise you -- Ernie's got a track record of heedless trouble, and George has been rescuing him for six previous books. (There's some balance, though; Ernie's fists and determination have pulled George out of a lot of dangerous moments, too.)

But you're in for surprises as MR. KILL continues to unfold. For one thing, "Mr. Kill" is the nickname of a seriously amazing Korean investigator, head of the national investigative forces. For another, George's relationship with Mr. Kill shifts rapidly from enormous respect to desperation and then involves even more uncomfortable ties. There are plot twists that punch holes in the customary detection routines, and insights into religion, women, men, and national pride, tucked into the fast-paced scenes.

By the end of MR. KILL, the American team knows a lot more about both American and Korean mistakes and dangers. And it's clear there's a sequel already in the works.

That can only be good news -- because this is a truly top-notch series, and Soho Crime gets a tip of the hat again for finding it and keeping it coming.

A quick note for newcomers to the series: You don't need to have read the others before this one (although I'm hoping you'll want to, even if you read book 7 first). And you won't be circling the house checking the locks the way you might have with the recent Scandinavian noir, or grimacing over details of abuse or body fluids -- Limón's action is more geared to human affection and loyalty, despite the detection and risks involved. Pick this one up, in order to enjoy both the good read, and the good feeling afterward. Let me know if you agree.

(P.S. -- for a wildly different sense of this author's viewpoint, check out his recent rant on the future of the U.S. Postal Service, in his guest post on the crime fiction author blog "Murder is Everywhere." Worth a look!)

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