Sunday, January 18, 2015

Korean Police Procedural: Martin Limón, THE IRON SICKLE

The ninth Sueño and Bascom mystery from Martin Limón, THE IRON SICKLE (Soho Crime), takes a small, tragic crime -- a murderous attack in a military claims office, by a local man who's obviously unbalanced -- and follows an intrepid pair of Army investigators through the city of Seoul and Korea's mountainous rural regions, spinning a taut, well-told story of suspense. And at the same time, Limón exposes some of Korea's large, tragic history: from the 1970s (the time when the mystery is set) backward into Japanese occupation and American-aided liberation, and forward to the swift growth of the Pacific Rim country, into a future of power and prestige.

But Limón never paints with a broad brush -- he nails the story and the suspense through personal detail. Like the Koreans around them, investigators George Sueño and Ernie Bascom deal with orders that make hardly any sense to them. The reaction the "brass" has to the murder that's taken place on their base is to send these two seasoned Criminal Investigation Division officers to patrol the fences. Yes, it's because they've annoyed an officer or two. And they're not exactly the favorites of the Military Police, either -- Sueño's taken the crazy step of actually learning Korean, to speak with suspects, victims, and witnesses, and Bascom, well, he's been known to engage in something more than just lust with the ladies. Only when the politics of the case engage Seoul's own investigators in an effort to not solve the case (!) do the teams demand Sueño and Bascom in action.

The "iron sickle" of the title is the murder weapon, and it's in use -- or another one like it! -- for more slash-and-slaughter events clearly aimed at the American military. But there's some aspect to the crimes that's embedded in Korean symbolism, as George and Ernie find what looks like a totem at one the crime scenes:
"Wait a minute. What's that?" I pointed. The beam of Ernie's flashlight followed mine.

"Hell if I know," Ernie said.

There was a jumble of wooden crates, most of them flattened, thin slats held together by thick wire. One of the crates was standing upright, the slats of wood forming a teepee-like shape. Atop that, strands of wire had been woven into a flat, rectangular grill. The entire edifice stood about three feet tall.

"Christ," Ernie said.

Hanging from the construction was a dead rat, eviscerated and dangling from its back paws, thick blood seeping from red guts.
It's a crazy item to find, and emphasizes the insanity of the criminal and crimes. But as the investigation continues, the two CID men find that the darker crimes of the past may lead toward exactly this response -- and the people around them who seem craziest may in fact be the ones most wounded, responding in ways that make perfect sense.

And that, of course, is how they team up with the beautiful psychiatrist Dr. Prevault, and the struggling Korean therapist, Doctor Hwang.

Soon the team is racing toward the site of a military disaster from the past, trying to sort out their own form of sanity and justice.

Limón's ninth book in the series is tightly woven, hard to put down, as the tension continues to ramp, and the investigators take grave risks. You don't need to read the earlier books in the series, although they'll add to the bond with Sueño and Bascom if you do. Me, I'm looking forward to book 10, later this year (maybe the end of summer?) -- and I may just decide to re-read the entire series while I wait!

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