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Sunday, Nov. 20, 2005

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

There's no morning calm for Korean crime stories


THE DOOR TO BITTERNESS by Martin Limon. New York: Soho Press Inc., 2005, 278 pp., $23 (cloth).
FADE TO CLEAR by Leonard Chang. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004, 322 pp., $23.95 (cloth).
DARK ANGEL by Geoffrey Archer. London: Arrow Books, 2005, 482 pp., £6.99 (paper).

It's 1973, and Sergeants George Suen~o and Ernie Bascom, CID investigators for the U.S. 8th Army in Seoul, Korea, are once again on the hunt.

Two decades since the 1953 armistice, Korea's economy has yet to recover and still supports a thriving black market. The illegitimate mixed-race offspring of American GIs and local women are treated as outcasts. Two, a stunning young woman and her accomplice, have turned to a series of vicious crimes that began with their slipping a drug into Suen~o's drink so that they could mug him and steal his .45 automatic and ID documents.

The loss of a firearm is treated as a severe infraction, so Suen~o, who conveys the story in the first person, and partner Bascom embark on a desperate search to track down the felons and recover the weapon. Their investigation turns into a series of madcap encounters with uncooperative American colleagues, adversarial Korean cops, seedy black marketers and bar girls on the make.

Like Limon's three previous novels, "The Door to Bitterness" is mystery fiction superimposed over autobiography. Limon served half of his 20-year military career in Korea, married there, and knows the country intimately.

"Traveling to Korea not only transported me to a completely different culture, it also transported me back in time," Limon tells an interviewer on mysteryguide.com. "Off duty was when the military life was fascinating . . . . A bunch of American GI's (highly cultured individuals all) dropped into the midst of a four-thousand-year-old Asian society. Who could ask for better material?"

The title, incidentally, originates from a Korean admonition that goes, "You have opened the door to bitterness." Open this book, and you won't want to put it down. A great read.

Soft-boiled romance

Korean-American gumshoe Allen Choice (his name was Americanized from "Choi") is a principal in Baxter & Choice Investigations, a two-man San Francisco outfit that handles mostly corporate work. Choice is recruited by journalist Linda Maldonaldo, his former lady love, to track down her sister's ex-husband who has abducted their daughter. Unfortunately the sister leaves out some important details and Choice soon discovers the hard way that the ex has lots of money and a vicious brother with a criminal record.

Tough, determined and good at what he does, Choice comes across as a competent PI. But he's rootless as only a California-raised orphan cut off from his ancestral Asian roots can be. Perhaps for this reason, he's putty in the hands of women and too much of the narrative is devoted to the detective's discord with his former and current love interests.

In an essay written in 1928, mystery author S.S. Van Dyne criticized an excess of romance in detective stories, remarking that "The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar." Mystery writers began to disregard this stipulation long ago -- the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker being among the worst infringements that come to mind. It's a rare work today in which a private cop doesn't take a break from his endeavors for a little smooching on the side. The question that arises is whether "Fade to Clear" should be described as a crime story with romance in the background, or a Harlequin Romance with crime thrown in for good measure. Just when I was starting to suspect the latter, author Chang redeemed himself by arranging for the violent demise of one of Choice's lady friends.

Korean interlude

In September 1948, 14-year-old Sara Sedley is found murdered in a North London suburb under murky circumstances. Two years later, the murdered girl's brother Tom and his friend Marcus Warwick are both serving in the British Army in Korea.

Nearly half of Archer's narrative is set in Korea, where the two boyhood friends have been sent, each initially unaware that the other is there too. While Tom serves as an enlisted man at the front, Marcus is an officer with a rear-echelon assignment, which gives him the opportunity to subdue a young Korean woman in his quarters. The offspring of this brief liaison, a daughter, is adopted by an American couple, eventually becomes a news reporter and travels to Britain in search of the father she never knew.

The Korean episodes serve as a backdrop to the main story, which concerns Sara's mysterious death and the lives it changed. Archer's well-written account of the British military contingent during the Korean Conflict keeps "Dark Angel" from becoming what would otherwise be a rather mundane British drawing-room mystery.



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