Sunday, January 9, 2011

Another Winner from Martin Limon

Martin Limon has carved out a unique space for himself in the world of crime fiction. His series is set in the South Korea of the 1970s, and his two protagonists are U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division detectives, George Sueno and Ernie Bascomb. Sueno is the brains of the outfit; Bascomb supplies the brawn. Luckily they have the reputation of being the best team in the C.I.D., which allows them to get away with occasionally disobeying orders and ignoring the miles of military red tape as they pursue their investigations.

Like most young American soldiers, when off-duty Sueno and Bascomb party hard in Seoul's red light district. One night they are approached by a young woman in a bar who asks them to deliver a note to a British soldier who is part of a U.N. detachment. Sueno and Bascomb oblige and shortly thereafter, they are ordered to the scene of a murder. There they find knifed to death the British soldier to whom they had delivered the note.

The detectives realize immediately that they have been used to target the victim for his killer and thus they launch a very personal manhunt in an effort to track down the perpetrator. Sueno and Bascomb are essentially caught in a vise: If the Army discovers their role in the killing, they will be in deep trouble, no matter the fact that their intentions were innocent. If that weren't bad enough, the killer quickly targets the two detectives who are closing in on him.

As the case develops, more bodies are discovered, and Sueno and Bascomb find themselves entangled in the murky underground (literally) world of the Slicky Boys, a gang of thieves who have been ripping off the U.S. Army for more than twenty years.

As is always the case in these books, Limon presents a very intriguing view of South Korea in the 1970s and of the interaction between the Koreans and the Americans. Sueno and Bascom are well-drawn characters, and it's fun to tag along with them whether they are partying with bar girls, investigating a crime, or running for their lives.

If there's any problem with this series, it's that Limon sometimes gets carried away and supplies a conclusion that is simply over the top to what is otherwise a solid police procedural. He's guilty of that here and you wind up shaking your head at the last couple of chapters. But that's a relatively minor complaint, and Slicky Boys is an otherwise very entertaining ride.

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