I mentioned last time that I'd be getting to this review very soon because I was enjoying the book so much. Well I did enjoy it, but best laid plans and all that.
Anyway, here we are starting off 2013 on a high note. I'm always game for a Soho Crime series, the more geographically distant from Cambridge MA, the better. Martin Límon's series set in 1970s era Seoul totally delivers. The plot of Jade Lady Burning (Soho Press, 1991, this ed. 2011) first in the series, starts with an inexplicably gruesome murder, and carries us forward (in a military issue Jeep of course) through both the literal alleys of Seoul's red light district, Itaewon, and the figurative alleys of US military justice. Toss in some obvious but entertaining military-related politics, and the murky expat lifestyle that exists on the fringes of the huge American defense complex in Korea, and you've got a satisfying stew of a story.
Our heroes are George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, two CID detectives with the 8th Army in Seoul who are not afraid to push a case beyond their orders, or to drink themselves silly on any given night. We hear this story from Sueño's perspective mostly, and he's the sensitive one in the pair - tricky independent upbringing, curious about Korean culture, taking the time to actually speak to Korean people in Korean, highly aware of local custom. Bascom is less deeply drawn, but still feels like a UXB. Perhaps the next book in the series will give us more on his back story.
The plot trajectory here is pretty straightforward: prostitute is found murdered most fouly and probably by a Yank, Sueño and Bascom are dispatched to figure it out. The boyfriend is taken into custody, but Our Heroes are pretty sure he didn't do it so they keep poking around and uncover some very nasty relationships. They are aided in this by an "old" prostitute named Kimiko (she's probably all of 28 or something) who commands both ridicule and respect from the other denizens of Itaewon. There's also a thread where Sueño and Bascom are taken off the murder, and told to follow around some folks who are potentially fiddling the procurement system. Can't say much more without giving critical bits away, but there are not any outrageously unbelievable turns here - just a solid and disciplined dispersal of creeps and losers and generally bad guys.
One highlight of Jade Lady Burning is Itaewon itself. Límon's command of his location is completely compelling, from the opening scene on the Blue Line night train to Seoul, to a drive up into the hills toward the DMZ. Itaewon, the red light district with the Japanese name, is a place where you can get a beer at 10 in the morning, and some good gossip from the (more than likely) female barkeep. Of course the quail is the reason that most GIs go there. But it's not a desperate or bleak place. Límon's Itaewon has a brightness to it, a kind of forward movement that speaks of business getting done with a a pat on the ass and a cheerful leer.
"GIs bounced up the main road of Itaewon, hands in their pockets, breath and laughter billowing from their mouths, ignoring the slippery ice as they headed for the neon.
The village was a huge web of brightness, shrouded now in snow. Nightclubs lined the main road and alleys branched off, up steep stone steps, to smaller, cozier clubs. Old women lurked in the darkness ready to lead any willing GI to a brothel if he didn't have the time or the temperament for the dancing and the booze and the laughter." (35)
One might say it's got seoul.
Another strong area includes the terrific characters peopling this Itaewon. Límon creates a vast cast of small parts, all deftly characterized in a paragraph or two. In Itaewon there is the fading but tough Kimiko, the cheerful Ginger who owns the American Club, Milt Gorman whose Roundup club features country and western music (of course), The Nurse, and who can forget the stately Miss Lim from Hawaii? Sure, they're more or less in the business of selling booze and flesh, but you know, everyone knows it, and the are fair in their dealings with everyone. On base, the characters are not as charming, although the many levels of Army bureaucracy are magnificently rendered, something that could only be done by a military insider (cover notes indicate a ten-year tour in Korea within a 20 year Army career). A couple of notable exceptions are Chief Winkle, who runs a motor pool and is the biggest bookie on base, and the fabulously mysterious Miss Kim, who clerks in the Admin Section of the CID and only really responds to Ernie Bascom's silent treatment and gifts of gum. The rest are either drunks or just a little creepy. Watch out in particular for the chaplain's office.
It's not that Límon is a spectacular writer. His writing is good enough so that you don't notice it. It's that he's got a great touch of combining atmosphere and character observation.
"The Lower Four Club was the hub for certain of the American expatriates; electronics technicians making extra pay for the 'hardship tour,' insurance salesmen thriving in a sea of uninsured young bachelors, and the occasional representative for a distributorship zeroing in on the PX market.
Many of them were veterans, military retirees living on their pension checks, former NCOs who'd finished their twenty years and now got a check every month for fifty percent of their former pay. Most of them held part-time, horse-shit jobs on the compound. Almost to a man, the retirees had a Korean wife or mistress who they lived with down in the village. A lot of them had kids. Often it was their second set; the first kids, by an American wife, were grown and on their own.
They were a strange lot. A few of them had lived through the Korean War and couldn't get away from it. Most of them didn't really understand why they lived in Korea. They only understood somehow that they would never go home." (161-162)
Depressing and compelling at the same time, great, huh? There are several more books in this series, and I look forward to reading them.