Saturday, January 16, 2016

Buddha's Money

Buddha's Money (1998, Bantam, this edition 2005, Soho Crime), the third installment in the Sueño and Bascom series from Martin Limón, reads like it was written to get a movie deal.  There are exotic and dramatic settings, beautiful and dangerous women, lost treasure, children in peril, chase scenes, and lots and lots of fights.  There are even dangerous beasties and fighting monks, and at times, the whole things has a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon vibe.  (I know, completely different country - except not entirely, as you'll find if you read this story.)  Extremely fast-paced, with lots of twists at the end, and more history than one might expect, Buddha's Money is entertaining but not deeply thoughtful.  Action - not contemplative investigation - drives this plot.  

That sounds like more of a criticism than it is.  This story has a lot to commend it, but it moves so fast into hard-to-imagine territory that it loses investigative nuance in all the dust-'em-ups.  Our Heroes, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, are cops with the Eighth Army's Criminal Investigation Division in Seoul, Korea, in the early 1970s.  There's definitely a later-day Vietnam vibe in all of Limón's stories set here.  The red-light district is referred to as the ville, a number of the characters are Vietnam veterans with the psychic scars to prove it, and there is a sense of Americans running the show and not a damn thing any local can do about except make money off of dumb GIs in ways both legal and not.  

As the story opens, Our Heroes are called to intervene in the mugging of a Buddhist nun in the red-light district Itaewon.  They are quickly drawn into the kidnapping of an adopted girl from her hot-mess-of-an-American-vet father and her former-hooker/thief Korean mother (no angels, either one), which leads to the complex story of a missing rare antique that just about everyone in Korea wants a piece of - and are willing to double-cross or kill to get it.  There is a long history to the missing antiquity, and whoever gets it will have the path to untold riches as well as a legitimate claim to the long-defunct Dragon Throne in China.  

So you've got your Buddhist monks, your Mongolians, and some ancestrally-royal Chinese, all looking for this thing, and willing to kill or worse to obtain it.  Sueño and Bascom are enlisted by the parents of the kidnapped girl, but quickly get involved with a mysterious and beautiful antiques dealer, some nasty Mongolians, and a sweet little nun.  S and B drive all over Korea following leads, meeting beautiful ladies, and beating up pretty much anyone who gets in their way.  These two must be ironmen or something, they get their lights punched out almost every day (and give as good as they get), and somehow survive to keep going to the next rendezvous.  They also drive like maniacs, swim underwater for seemingly endless minutes, row boats across the sea, and drink heavily when the opportunity presents itself.   

I'm not going to attempt to say more about the story than this, because it would take too long and I'd probably miss a key piece.  But in the movie, a younger Jimmy Smits would play Sueño and if I can go x-generational, I'd cast Matt Damon as Bascom.

Image result for young jimmy smits

What do I like about these stories?  I like Limón's obvious command of place.  He writes vividly of both the gritty red-light district, where neon shimmers in the ever-present rain, and the green fields and mist-shrouded ricky islands away from the Korean capital.  The only setting that doesn't really come alive is Eighth Army HQ, which remains, perhaps intentionally, bland and even opaque.  Maybe that is because none of the action take place here.  Limón's writing is clean and does not distract either, although I can't quite decide if the story is being told by narrator Sueño in real-time, or after the fact.  And I do take issue with repeated descriptive tropes like bubbling saliva, little nuns, and sparkling neon.  There is also a lot of damp, and puddles, and fat raindrops, but it is monsoon season, so this works.  

I also like Our Heroes.  Ernie is a psychopath:  violence and policing provide the high that heroin did for him in Vietnam.  But that bad-boy aura is magnetic for the ladies:  he attracts them all, from hookers to nuns.  George is the good cop but emotionally vulnerable - army life provides a kind of family for this Cali-Mex orphan.  He is also the more thoughtful of the two, having learned some Korean and made an effort to understand the local history and culture.  And that's what keeps this story from becoming just a series of fights.  

Finally, I appreciate the background.  The only way you can possibly follow this story is because George takes the time to explain the historical background to you.  I feel like I may just possibly have learned something about Korea, even if it is history-lite.  George does this in manageable bites so not overly pedantic, but you have the sense that his partner really could not care less and is just interested in the next creep he can demolish or lady he can conquer with his ginseng gum.  

These guys are smart, and in their way, they care about the local population.  So I wish they didn't have to beat confessions out of their subjects, or the next plot-point out for the reader.  

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