Sunday, October 08, 2017

Crime-Solving in the Korean DMZ (and Beyond) for Sueño and Bascom in THE NINE-TAILED FOX, Martin Limón

Soho Crime continues to bring remarkable international crime fiction to American readers -- and one of most enjoyable of the current series is the one from former military pro Martin Limón. Limón writes from his decade spent in Korea, with the complex mixture of love and despair that a friend of this small-but-fierce nation can easily develop. And his investigators from the US Army's military police in the 1970s, sergeants Ernie Bascom and George Sueño, operate from that same complicated standpoint: wanting to make things work out well for the Koreans around them who are so often misunderstood by the American forces, and pressed to a timeline of "solve this and get back to base" -- while also resisting the dangerous partnership with the Korean National Police that they've entered over the past few titles in the series.

There are already a dozen books before this just-released title, THE NINE-TAILED FOX, and I'm such a fan of these well-written crime novels that I suggest reading them all. But you don't need to have followed the series before plunging into this one. For one thing, Limón is a strong author who engages readers in both character and plot twists, without depending on prior knowledge; for another, it appears from the slightly uneven "explaininess" of the first few chapters that someone decided to make sure there were extra paragraphs to bring people into the situation. After all, Army life isn't simple, and neither was the Korean assistance in the 1970s, a presence by American forces that the Asian nation desired in order to hold back the Chinese, but also in some senses an Occupation operating from a narrow set of prejudices and military logic.

This time, George and Ernie -- the only ones on their base who seem able to navigate the streets of Seoul successfully -- are thrust into investigating three missing servicemen, in three different locations. The pressure's nonstop, from their superior officers (solve it, clean it up), from the Korean officer they've nicknamed "Mr. Kill" who's going to take things into his own hands soon, and of course from the sense of obligation these investigators feel when they witness murder and the associated local pressures of organized crime and prostitution.

The title refers to a Korean fairy tale of a sexually devouring woman called "the nine-tailed fox" -- or in Korean, the gumiho, a term that the investigators first hear described by others as a "gummy whore." (Their on-base informant, an eccentric pervert they've nicknamed "Strange," is quickly obsessed with this archetypal figure!) She appears to have lured each of the three missing men in some way, in order to kidnap them. But why? There are no ransom demands, no action that makes sense in American terms. Or Korean!

By the time Sueño and Bascom -- with dangerous assistance from Mr. Kill -- sort out what's really going on, they're in too deep to back out. But also too deep to keep themselves safe.

Let the awkward first few pages slide by, and follow the chase into the complicated crime and highly specific Korean negotiations that follow. This is a great page-turner, and at the same time a classic military-based mystery, packed with action and intrigue.

Oh yes, do get the rest of the series as soon as you can. I've rarely found a series with such diverse plots. And having a small taste of Korean culture in the past, I find the setting and motivations in Limón's books addicting, and the plots highly readable. Thanks to Soho Crime as well as the author, for keeping this one rolling.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

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