Title: Jade Lady Burning
Author: Martin Limón
Publisher: Soho Crime, 2003 (Originally published 1992.)
Trade Paperback, 224 pages
Genre: Police Procedural, #1 Sueño & Bascom mystery
Source: Purchased at The Poisoned Pen.
First Line: Ernie and I finished the black-market case in Pusan, did a little celebrating, and caught the Blue Line night train back to Seoul.
It's not often that you'll see me reading books set in Asia during the Vietnam War era whose main characters are young men more concerned with having fun in the red light district than anything else. But in my quest to be a more complete armchair traveler, I've been branching out. I'd heard good things about Martin Limón's series from trusted sources, and I had the vague notion that these books were about more than two young men spending all their money on wine, women and song in Seoul. I was right.
The bizarre murder of a young Korean prostitute has the Eighth Army command spluttering and twitching. Although the investigation should have been left to the Korean police, the young woman was known to have many clients amongst the American servicemen stationed in and around Seoul. The Korean media would have a field day with this American angle, so the Eighth Army's criminal investigation division takes charge. Sergeants George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are put in charge of finding out who murdered the young woman.
Their investigation leads them to Itaewon, the section of Seoul known for alcohol, music and prostitution. It is a neighborhood with which the two are very familiar. Sueño is Hispanic, from East LA. He appreciates the housing, the regular meals, and the pay of Army life. He speaks some Korean and is often told that he's "too soft" on the natives. This is probably because he sees the country differently from most:
I loved Korea. It was a whole new world of different tastes and smells, and a different, more intense way of looking at life. People here didn't take eating and breathing for granted. They were fought for.
He also sees his job differently from most. He doesn't want to focus solely on black market cases, and "phone in" his results. He truly cares:
I owed something to Miss Pak Ok-suk and Mr. Watkins. Not because they were friends or relatives but just because they had been assigned to me: my responsibility. I'd be damned if I'd take the easy route and not do my best for them.
There's a lot to like about Sergeant George Sueño. On the other hand, I felt that his partner, Ernie Bascom, was greatly under-utilized almost to the point of being a non-entity. There was just enough information given about him to lead me to believe I might be looking at a prime crime fiction psychotic.
The pace of the book seemed very leisurely most of the time, but I didn't really mind because Limón had immersed me in a completely alien atmosphere, and I wanted to check everything out slowly. As the two investigators strolled through bars asking questions and sometimes accepting propositions from the prostitutes they talked to, I wasn't concerned with their morals. They were no different than tens of thousands of other young men finding themselves with money in their pockets and light years away from home.
What did concern me was the clipped, almost military flow of the language that transported me into the midst of an absorbing mystery in unfamiliar country-- a mystery populated with interesting people, in particular Sergeant George Sueño. I definitely want to continue with this series, one reason being that I have to find out if I'm right about Ernie Bascom!