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Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010

Seoul brothers take to the streets


G.I. BONES, by Martin Limon, Soho Press, 2009, 266 pp., $24 (hardcover)

Can the term "historical mystery" be applied to works set in the early 1970s? Perhaps not. But Martin Limon's series, now up to six volumes, reliably and compellingly captures the lives and times of George Sueno and Ernie Bascomb, sergeants assigned to the Criminal Investigation Division of the U.S. Eighth Army in Seoul four decades ago.

In this latest episode, Sueno, a hulking Hispanic-American, has the hots for Dr. Young In-ja, a female physician at a local public health clinic. At the doc's bidding Sueno drops in on a traditional Korean soothsayer named Auntie Mee, who claims she's being haunted by the spirit of a dead American soldier. Mee tells Sueno that unless the unnamed soldier's remains are repatriated to America, Miss Kwon, a shy country girl contracted to work in the Itaewon bar district, will die.

Combing through dusty reports and canvassing old-timers in the Itaewon bar district, Sueno and Bascomb gradually piece together events that took place in the Itaewon district in the months after the 1953 ceasefire, when a group of ruthless men were willing to stop at nothing to monopolize the area's commercial potential. Now, it appears their surviving victims have banded together to exact retribution, and it's up to Sueno and Bascomb to figure out how an American soldier pronounced missing and presumed dead 20 years ago fits into the equation.

Their investigation becomes bogged in the usual jurisdictional disputes and then infuriatingly sidetracked by orders to track down their base commander's notoriously promiscuous 17-year-old daughter, who's run off to start working as a courtesan in the local economy.

The series paints a realistic picture of South Korea in the 1970s as seen through the subjective eyes of two American servicemen, brilliantly interspersing their clumsy cross-cultural encounters with hard-boiled action. Limon's flawed heroes — by turns klutzy, obstinate and gallant — are very appealing, and even when one of the lead protagonists falls head over heels in love with a key character, their romance merges seamlessly with the narrative. Rather than having to flip past irritating digressions — the detective story equivalent of a three-minute commercial break on the telly — every passage in "G.I. Bones" is relevant to the plot.

In contrast to the literary craftsmanship of "G.I. Bones" is "The Expediter" by David Hagberg (Forge, 2009, 352 pp., $9.99, paper), another one of those forgettable potboilers in which the fate of the civilized world hangs in the balance (again). This time, former CIA operative Kirk McGarvey saves East Asia from nuclear war.

With the unlikely piled upon the implausible — McGarvey even gets a U.S. Navy helicopter to drop him into Ueno Park to catch a maverick KGB agent leading a team of Korean assassins — it's a paint-by-numbers thriller that entertains as long as the reader is willing to suspend belief. While you can't judge a book by its cover, it's hard to expect much from one with a disclaimer apologizing to Kim Jong Il on Page 4.



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