Tuesday, June 07, 2016

CID Sergeants in Korea, Where Love and Murder Mingle, PING PONG HEART, Martin Limón

Hard to believe Martin Limón has reached the 11th already in his superb Sueño and Bascom series, set in American-occupied Korea in 1974. In PING PONG HEART, Limón proves again that for a pair of Army CID (Criminal Investigation Division) sergeants with heart, even a war zone can be a place where justice is served -- which is not exactly the same as keeping the letter of the law, is it?

George Sueño and Ernie Bascom don't think much of the case that comes there way at the opening of the book. It sounds like a classic low-life "he-said, she-said," with the Provost Marshal sending them to check out an irate major's claim that a prostitute downtown, Miss Jo, took his money and ran off, without providing any, umm, services. Major Schultz has "connections," which is why Sueño and Bascom have the assignment, instead of ordinary military police. Plus, the two of them get along with the Koreans better than most ... George studies the language and can carry on a conversation pretty well (although he's not yet reading the characters), and Ernie, well, all the girls seem to love him -- both the bar girls and their colleagues the (not always willing) prostitutes, and the secretary in the office on base. Which really should be another thing altogether, except somehow Miss Kim turns out to have her own complications that cross over into the not-so-small-after-all case.

Within the first 24 hours of the case, Sueño and Bascom find themselves tripping over people they really ought to stay away from: the power brokers in military intelligence. But as always, since they're on the side of the disadvantaged (in this case, the Korean bar girls) and being pushed by their dangerous-to-resist Korean counterpart investigator, Mr. Kill, the pair have plenty of reasons to move forward (against orders, of course). This time, each one's heart is also at risk: Ernie because Miss Kim means more to him than he's admitted so far, and George because a sudden chance to see his half-Korean son (readers of the earlier books, are you coming to attention?) during the investigation could capsize the easier relationship he's had working for him lately.

There's also a lot of fun here, in spite of the stakes. For instance, Ernie's been telling George that speaking in Korean to the girls being investigated in losing respect for them. George doesn't buy it -- but a mama-san who owns the bar where they're looking for a lead is more blunt:
"You talk," she said. "Pretty soon I busy."

I asked her again to sit, this time in Korean. She thought it over, stepped forward, and keeping her butt toward the edge of the chair, sat down. "You speaky Korean pretty good," she said. "Who teach you?"

"I study it," I said. "On compound." ...

She shook her head. "Number hucking ten." No good. There's no "f" sound in the Korean alphabet so often it's replaced with "h." And in GI slang, number one -- or hana -- is best and, reasonably enough, number ten in worst.

"Why number ten?" I asked.

"GI speak Korean, all girl lose respect for GI."

Ernie grinned and sipped on his beer,

I took the bait. "Why lose respect?"

Her eyes widened. "Talk like baby. All girl laugh at them."

Ernie glugged even more of his beer down, trying to keep from bursting into laughter.

"Okay," I said. "No more Korean. Only English." ... Then I asked her about Jo Kyong-Ja.
PING PONG HEART is full of action, twists, and good moments -- a classic Martin Limón book, satisfying, enjoyable, and almost impossible to put down. No need to read the others in the series first, but you may want them all, after reading this one.

From Soho Press, whose Soho Crime imprint continues to bring great international (and American) crime fiction to the table.

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