The Wandering Ghost
Soho Press, 2007
Ten years ago I interviewed Martin Limón for a radio program. His second novel, Slicky Boys, was in the bookstores, getting good press as usual, and he was waiting for Buddha's Money to be released. He was excited about his series about two "maverick agents," as he described them, of the U. S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division, stationed in South Korea in the seventies-- George Sueño and Ernie Bascom. He admitted that he was a fan of hard-boiled literature and writers, and he mentioned Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Lawrence Block as among those he admired. He would have preferred to write about an American private eye in Seoul, Korea, he said, but since that didn't make sense, he came up with the idea of two Army cops rooting through the corruption and sleaze that they confronted during their tour of duty. Limón spent twenty years in the Army and ten of those years were in Korea, in a variety of different jobs, one of which was M.P., military policeman. And yes, his stories were based on some of his experiences in Korea.
He said one thing that I came back to when I had finished reading his latest Sueño and Bascom story, The Wandering Ghost, recently published by Soho Press. "I was always fascinated by the clash of all these thousands of young G.I.s suddenly running into a 4000-year-old culture. ... George and Ernie are caught right in the middle of that clash." Limón has taken that thought and expanded it into an incisive portrayal of the destructive effects of such a clash, and created a book that explores themes of cultural imperialism; the struggle to maintain cultural traditions in a world that moves too fast to hang on to most traditions; gender oppression; and the invulnerability that is bestowed on men in positions of power, authority and control.
As Michael Sedano pointed out in his review of this book earlier this week, The Wandering Ghost is an excellent detective novel filled with nervous tension, frenetic action, unexpected but believable plot twists, some really bad people, and a pair of good guys who do the right thing in spite of themselves and their commanding officers, and at the risk of their goal of honorably retiring from the Army. They solve the crime with old-fashioned hard work, putting together seemingly unconnected clues, running down false leads, and knowing the right people to talk to when vital information is needed -- prostitutes, bartenders, con men, and community elders. They stick to their job although everyone else tells them that the job is over.
The core story of a missing female M.P. is juxtaposed with the story of a young Korean girl killed by reckless American G.I.s, who never have to face Korean courts or justice, and over it all is a rough veneer of black marketeers, sexual predators, and high-level depravity.
There was a break of several years between Buddha's Money and Limón's next novel, The Door to Bitterness, but it is a good sign for all of his readers that The Wandering Ghost has been a quick follow-up to The Door to Bitterness. The more we read about Sueño and Bascom, the more we want to learn. Limón is an accomplished craftsman at providing just enough additional detail in each of the books to gradually fill in the pictures of these two Chicano tough guys who can't help but side with the Korean people, the lowly grunt, the brutalized policewoman, or whatever underdog slips into the plot. The Wandering Ghost informs the reader that George came from East L.A., a product of foster homes, and that he picked up valuable lessons of life on the streets. We also see that he has the initiative and foresight to try to learn the Korean language, that he has studied that country's philosophical and religious heritage, and that he is embarrassed by the rowdy and disrespectful actions of other American soldiers, who think that their time in Korea is designed for the ultimate "bachelor experience" and very little else. On the other hand, Ernie is the rabble-rousing, hard-drinking, eager-to-throw -down-chingazos vato who is ready to act while George is still thinking about options. He fits in with the other G.I.s, but he really doesn't, if you know what I mean. Together, Sueño and Bascom make a great team.
Obviously, Limón has a deep affection and appreciation for the Korean people and their culture. The book is filled with details about music, food, language, Confucian ideals, ancient ceremonies, the interaction between young and old Koreans, and much more. Most importantly, the perspective of Limón's characters, which includes their relationship with the Korean people and culture, invites a discussion about the meaning of the ongoing and presumably perpetual presence of American troops in a country such as Korea, and whether such a presence can truly keep the peace or simply exacerbate the conflicts.
This is a fine novel filled with atmosphere and tension. As most good books do, it succeeds on several levels. If you appreciate crime fiction, military thrillers, political suspense, Chicano Lit, or just a good story, you should enjoy this book.