Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Review: Martin Limón, The Door to Bitterness

Michael Sedano

I am ordinarily a patient person. I waited thirteen months, back in 1969, for August 1970 to arrive, counting days to the moment I could board a plane out of Kimpo Airport for the United States and home. It's been a fitful time waiting for the next Martin Limón Korea crime novel featuring Chicano Sgt. George Sueño and his Anglo partner Ernie Bascom, to show up. It has been worthwhile waiting. Open The Door to Bitterness for a sweet roller coaster ride and a doozy of a story.

Sgt. Sueño comes to in an Itaewon alley. He's been drugged, conked on the head, and robbed of his CID identification and his Army-issue .45 pistol. It's a court-martial offense, but what more concerns the knuckle-headed East LA native is the possibility someone will use the weapon to commit murder.

A spectacular murder sends Sueño and Bascom traipsing all over Korea, from its larger cities to the deep, deep boonies. The crooks resemble Sueño and Bascom, but then, all miguk look alike to Koreans, and the Korean police are deeply resentful of GIs, and almost completely uncooperative.

Ingenuity, and Sueño's fluency in Hangul, doggedness and inspired detective work, finds clue after clue. Closer and closer come the detectives to the Smiling Woman who beguiled Agent Sueño into that dark alley, closer to the Anglo-looking crook, closer to what must have been a Korean native sired by a long-absent GI inseminator.

Excitement and edge of your seat story-telling are two hallmarks of Martin Limón's work. Earlier titles, Slicky Boys, Buddha's Money, and Jade Lady Burning, tiptoe around the periphery of the moral poverty that leaves half caste children castaway in their own world. The Door to Bitterness places the topic in the crosshairs of the plot.

Sueño and Bascom are ville rats, not a speck of nobility to their quotidian performance. Bascom's a desperate alcoholic and ladies man, Sueño's alcoholism is outweighed by his less discriminate taste in whores. Thinking with his penis gets him into deep kimchi, his razorsharp inductive skills gradually pull him out. And, in seeming contradiction, a high sense of morality derived in part from his Chicano youth motivates the detective's drive to close the book on the crime.

Sueño's ethos gets sorely tested the more convoluted the plot grows. Children--physically disabled--sold into slavery found servicing GIs in no-man's land. The Status of Forces Yobo laws that define concubinage as a recognized profession. Oppressive health laws that quarantine STD-carrying prostitutes, and in this case, that seize a woman's children when she contracts TB. Guilt drills itself into Sueño's awareness as the mystery takes him deeper into this maze of laws, custom, and culture.

It's a dark and stormy night as the story comes to a close. But Limón makes it work. In the end, the culprits get what's coming to them, and the murderers attain the justice that Sueño's ethos forces upon the story. Totally satisfying.

I spent my 13 months in the Korean backwoods, way way out in the middle of nowhere. I wasn't a ville rat. Honestly. But some of my best friends were. And the few times I got down to Seoul, I had a chance to stroll into Itaewon, and strolled right back again, all shook up, as the song goes. Sueño and Bascom are most comfortable when they are hanging out in Itaewon. There's a certain logic to that.

Limón does superb work catching the netherworld where GI culture meets that part of Korean culture that tolerates contact with Unitedstatesians. The pidgin I grew so fond of, Limón has chosen to avoid, in favor of more exact Hangul, and anglicized spelling. No matter. Dialog has an uncanny authenticity to it that makes me almost homesick for my youthful year. If you have family in the military, and one of your kids is lucky enough to draw the 8th Army in the Land of the Morning Calm, be sure to give The Door to Bitterness, or all of Limón's novels, to their mother.

She'll never forgive you. Pero sabes que? If she's a fan of great detective stories, and she hasn't yet discovered Martin Limón's work, she'll instantly forgive you.



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