Sunday, October 21, 2018

Vivid New Crime Fiction from Martin Limón, THE LINE (Korea, the Suenõ and Bascom Series)

There are plenty of good mysteries around, in this season -- but the really masterful ones, the ones written by a gifted storyteller who keeps you in another time, place, and person without stumbling, those are rare. And such a gift!

So I dove hopefully into the new George Sueño and Ernie Bascom investigation from Martin Limón and Soho Press, THE LINE, and sure enough, I didn't come up for much else until I reached the end of the book. Although Limón's series starters are very exciting (Jade Lady Burning, Slicky Boys, Buddha's Money), this 13th title (14th if you count the short story collection) may well be the very best.

Sueño and Bascom are criminal investigators for the US Army in Korea in the 1970s, the heyday of tension along the line dividing the significant Asian nation, and a time when most Americans abroad still performed the "our country's way better than yours" routine. In fact, George Sueño stands out in the Army because he's taken time to learn Korean, both spoke and written, which makes him a far better investigator. On the other hand, his partner in crime-solving, Ernie Bascom, "gets" the Korean culture, and together the pair is almost fearless.

Which they're going to need especially this time, because "the line" that divides Korea from (at the time) Communist North Korea is the site of a murder the pair should investigate. But their arrival on scene at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) bristles with weapons and antagonism from both sides, and the investigators are stranded in between, in every sense. Soon, as anyone in their shoes could have predicted, even their superior officers opt to blame them for the friction and possible outbreak of hostilities resulting.
Colonel Brace stood up. "That'll be just about enough out of you." He stuck his finger about a foot from Ernie's nose. "You will not investigate this matter further. Is that clear?"

Ernie didn't answer.

"Is that clear?"

Finally, Ernie relented. Even he know that the hammer of the US Army smashed whatever it hit completely flat. He'd seen the splatter often enough.

"Yes, sir," Ernie replied sullenly. "It's clear."
Still, that won't stop the action -- they'll just have to figure a way to investigate "something else" that will circle around toward the information they want. Fortunately (so to speak), a missing officer's wife gives the two investigators a reason to return to the scene, this time in a dive bar near "the line." George is narrating:
Her name was Ai-suk. Love-Chastity. When I asked for her family name, she clammed up. Apparently, that was too many questions too fast. She was a cocktail waitress at the Lucky Seven. ...

Her eyes widened. "You dingy dingy?"

"No," I replied. "I'm not crazy."

"Paju-ri woman no can love GI," she replied, suddenly serious. "GI come. GI go. Always count days until go back Stateside. Go back wife. Go back girlfriend. Paju woman just make GI happy." She fluttered her fingers like a bird taking flight. "Then he go."

"What do you get in return?" I asked.

Her eyes widened once again. She was debating whether I was making fun of her. Apparently, she realized that I wasn't, so she answered seriously, "What Paju-ri woman get is we get to live."
Because George and Ernie take even these bar girls seriously and kindly, their case builds strength, one revelation at a time. And because Korean crime at the time came knotted together as a network, and the pair have exchanged favors with the Korean National Police, it will be possible to work on both their crime scenes at once -- most of the time, and with acceptable risk. Well, maybe not so acceptable.

Long-time fans of the series will enjoy appearances from "Strange," and Inspector "Kill," and scenes when the investigators go under cover in their blue jeans, sneakers, and nylon jackets embroidered with fire-breathing dragons. And oh yes, ID and firearms. Big money's at stake in both crimes.

Limón's expert plot twists and the heart-deep (if sometimes clumsy) generosity of the "good guys" here make for yet another excellent crime novel. If I were headed for a desert island -- or a Vermont winter --- I'd want this book in my backpack. And the other 13. No need to read the earlier ones before plunging into THE LINE, but be ready to start scrounging for them afterward, for the sheer pleasure of exploring this series in all its details and delight.  Release date, October 23.

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

[Or if you're just interested in more from this author: click this one.]

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