This is not a review about an Irish crime novel because yet again, I just could not maintain the energy to get through a Stuart Neville book. The Ghosts of Belfast has a terrific premise - a former IRA killer is haunted by the ghosts of his victims to the point where he decides to take vengeance on those who ordered (or made happen) their killings. But OH MY GOD is it violent. I get it, yes I do, civil combat, the neighbor-v.-neighbor stuff, is the farthest from civil of any kind of warfare. I have not completely forgotten my own studies. And the Irish took vengeance to extraordinary extremes. I know this is the real deal. But I just could not take any more fingernails being ripped off, blood, etc. with no redeeming character development or apparent plotline OTHER than that of vengeance, and so back on to the side of the tub it went. Sorry Stuart, I'll try again later.
That's not to say that Martin Limon does not offer his share of fist-crunching and blade-slashing and even a little fingernail action in Slicky Boys (1997, Soho Press). And Our Heroes Sueño and Bascomb don't always mix it up precisely on the right side of the law, either. In the service of justice, yes, at least in their minds. But they are not above trashing a few tea houses in order to make their point.
Limon's writing has such a ring of authenticity that it comes as no surprise that the slicky boys, GI slang for the master cat thieves that preyed upon the US compounds in Korea, are entirely real. Did the boss of them really live in a cave under Seoul? Who cares, when the writing is this good. Limon manages to deliver a GI world that is hard-boiled in a Miss Saigon kind of way - working girls, garish nightclubs, black marketing, but all with a bit of soul (could not resist that one). George Sueño is Mexican by birth, raised in the hard world of mid-20th c. Los Angeles foster homes, but solid enough in his sense of self to learn Korean and attempt to engage the host nation on its own level. Ernie Bascomb is a much looser cannon, maniacally chewing gum and sleeping with as many women as possible but still having an apparently strong relationship with his longtime Korean girlfriend, known as the Nurse. Bascomb resorts to violence more readily than Sueño, but since the story is always told from the latter's point of view, we don't get inside his head to sort it out.
Sueño and Bascomb manage to get themselves mixed up in the murder of a British soldier serving with the UN forces, and in attempting to simultaneously investigate the crime while hiding their own involvement are drawn into the night world of the black market and the slicky boys. Two more bodies appear, gruesomely mutilated. The nasty killer may or may not be one of them, or be involved with them, and the weakest link in the entire story is why he draws out Sueño and Bascomb in the first place, for sureasshootin' they are targeted by the killer from the get-go.
There are a couple of set pieces that take Our Heroes out of Seoul - to the ROK Navy HQ at Heingju and to the port city of Pusan which is expecting a visit from the USS Kitty Hawk. Both of these are so vividly described in careful detail and with nice historical context. The Navy visit in particular gives a great sense of Korea's pride in its past, and how that translates directly to the nation's present choices. That whole bit with the Kitty Hawk, well, no spoilers, but it is kind of ludicrous even if offering a break from the alleys and hooches of Itaewon. And the final motive for the killer feels a bit slapped on, as if Limon had a great scene in mind, but needed to come up with reasons for everyone to be there. Overall, this book is more thriller-paced than its predecessor, Jade Lady Burning, and you may find yourself raising an eyebrow in skepticism more than once at a plot turn.
Still. I really like Limon's choice of setting, and his main characters. The surprising thing about picking up Slicky Boys after dropping The Ghosts of Belfast was the immediate comfort I felt at being back in Seoul with the arrogant 8th Army, the overlay of previous Japanese occupation, the whole obnoxious officers and plucky enlisted men scene, it all just felt right.* I never felt that I fit with Neville's former IRA brutalists or their ha'nts. Maybe it is because for all the depth of the Irish conflict - and it goes back centuries as I know now having read a bit in preparation for a recent trip to Ireland - Neville's context was pure violence, rather than the motive for violence that animates the Korean response to, well, everything. You get a reason and a story here, rather than just revenge.
*And, given my father's recent passing, felt a bit nostalgic, too. My dad served on the USS Wasp, and was super proud of his time in the USN. Limon's description of the interservice rivalry between grunts and squids sounds just about right.