Friday, May 24, 2013

Slicky Boys

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.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

White Heat

M. J. McGrath, you had me at berg tea.  The opening sentence of White Heat (Penguin, 2011) goes like this:  "As she set a chip of iceberg on the stove for tea, Edie Kiglatuk mulled over why it was that the hunting expedition she was leading had  been so spectacularly unsuccessful."  (1)  With that, I'm sucked into to the thoroughly unfamiliar but deeply interesting world of the Canadian High Arctic, where this story takes place.

Our Heroine, Edie Kiglatuk, is an Inuit hunting guide, based in the small and peacefully depressed town of Autisaq on Ellesmere Island.  One of her clients is killed on an expedition, and while she is not suspected of any wrongdoing, a series of deaths on another expedition, including that of a beloved stepson, undoes her to the point of having to find out what happened.  The story potters along for a while as no one listens to Edie, and she descends down her own private rabbit hole by falling off the wagon after two years of sobriety.  (She's not alone with her drinking history; most of the people in the town have some kind of substance abuse issue or history.)  The things that are getting people killed have to do with the region's natural resources, and with the history of guided hunting - Edie's great great great grandfather Welatok is actually central to the modern day story.  It's complicated by contemporary human nature: the local pols seem suspiciously cozy with some of the visitors, Edie has a difficult relationship with her former husband's former family, and damn, it is sunny all day for part of the story!  That would be enough to drive me around the bend.  Eventually Edie bugs the local copper, Derek Palliser (half-Inuit), enough that he starts to take her seriously, and together they resolve the story with some exciting hunter-trekker stuff.  

McGrath has written quite a bit of nonfiction, including a book about forced removal of Inuit to Ellesmere Island in the 1950s, so she knows from what she speaks.  The site descriptions, and careful attention to detail like hunting prep and gear, weather, light, snow quality all have a quiet authenticity.  And there's the language, which appears pretty much impossible to pronounce, but McGrath does not shy away from incorporating a lot of Inuktitut words, and includes a brief afterword explaining a bit more.  (No, they do not have 10,000 words for snow.)
qalunnat = clearly means some kind of white man, not from these parts
iquq = shit
qaksungaut = diamond
ui = husband
igunac = fermented walrus gut, a tasty snack when on a hunting expedition
and so on.  McGrath draws a clear line between the worldview of Inuit and that of everyone else, and that distinction is ultimately what makes the story so very interesting.  The story hangs on something that might have been discovered by a famous Arctic explorer of yore, who ultimately died on an expedition, and was suspected of - his reputation tainted by - rumors of cannibalism.  "[Edie had] read enough about the old white explorers to know that the prospect of cannibalism hung over them like some malevolent spectre.  To the Inuit, eating human flesh was merely the survival tool of last resort.  The most dishonourable thing an Inuk man with a family could do was to take the easy way out, to give up the struggle to provide for his loved ones, lie down and die.  That way he condemned his present and future family and brought shame on his ancestors.  In the qalunaat world, the opposite was true."  (72)  It is just a matter of course to survive in this incredibly harsh climate - there is not a lot of emotion expended on it, which makes the description of Edie's travels and travails all the more compelling.

About that walrus gut, this is not a book for the culinarily faint-hearted.  There is a lot of seal eaten in this story - stewed, fried, soup, etc. - and walrus in various guises.  And at times it is washed down with buckets of Canadian Mist.   If you're a tea fancier like myself, you'll like the follow-up to the berg note above:
"She poured the boiling berg water into a thermos containing qungik, which white people called Labrador tea, and set aside the rest for herself.  You had to travel more than three thousand kilometers south from Umingmak Nuna, Ellesmere Island, where they were now, to find qungik growing on the tundra, but for some reason southerners thought Labrador tea was more authentic, so it was what she always served to her hunting clients.  For herself, she preferred Soma brand English Breakfast, brewed with iceberg water, sweetened with plenty of sugar and enriched with a knob of seal blubber." (1)

And, this being the Arctic, it is cold.  "As he picked up speed, he felt first the freezing of his eyelashes, then the hairs in his nose.  Even with his snow goggles on, tiny ice boulders began to accrete in the corners of his eyes."   (53)  The nose-hair bit I've experienced, but not the eye-boulders, yikes.

There's another Edie Kiglatuk mystery out now, and I look forward to reading it.  Sometime in the summer, when it is really, really hot.