Today is the release of our Pick Of The Month, The Iron Sickle by Martin Limón. The book deals with Sueño and Bascome, his Army CID cops stationed in Seventies-era South Korea, going after a killer who uses the title weapon on Army personnel. Martin Limón was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and his writing.
MysteryPeople: How did the idea for the sickle killer come about?
Martin Limón: In addition to my years spent in Korea, I still read a lot about Korea and the Korean War. Most recently, I’ve been reading post-war Korean literature translated into English by friends of minE, Bruce and Ju-chan Fulton, much of it centered around the lingering trauma of the war. Also, I was influenced, and appalled, by reports of the massacre of Korean refugees at the village of Nohgun-ri. In addition, I remembered the naht, the short-handled Korean sickle used by farmers to harvest rice and by gardening crews on the American Army compounds to cut grass. It all came together in this story. Still, I needed a person to wield the iron sickle. A person mad enough to use it and an event, or series of events, that drove him to this extreme level of madness. Gradually, the story and the characters came together.
MP: It was great to see Mr. Kill back. What made you want to use him again?
ML: Partially, he is a device to get George Sueño and Ernie Bascom off compound. They are always in trouble with their superiors and thus always relegated to the “black market detail.” That is, busting Korean civilian dependents for re-selling American-made products out of the Army commissary and PX. But when Mr. Kill, the highest ranking homicide investigator in the Korean National Police, asks for their assistance, they are freed up from their more mundane duties. Nothing irritates a military officer more than having one of his subordinates temporarily detailed outside of his or her direct control. But when the directive comes down from the 8th Army Chief of Staff, their boss has no choice but to comply.
Also, Mr. Kill is highly educated, not only in the States at an Ivy League university but also in the ancient arts of calligraphy and Classical Chinese literature. It’s fun to bring these elements not only into the resolution of the mystery but also as a counterpoint to modern Korean society and the anti-intellectual American military world in which George and Ernie live.
Finally, and most importantly, people tell me they like reading about him. I like writing about him.
MP: Much of the book’s last half takes place out in the mountain area of Korea. Do you have to keep some things in mind when Sueño and Bascom are out in the wilderness?
ML: Well, they are both city boys. Ernie grew up in the suburbs of Detroit and George was an orphan who lived in foster homes throughout Los Angeles County. George had never seen snow—other than in photos and movies—until he went on his first field maneuver in the army. In the book, they are surprised that the amenities they’re used to—public baths, mokkolli houses, noodle shops—aren’t available in the Taebaek Mountains but the training they received from the army helps pull them through.
MP: The friendship between Sueño and Bascom is both unique and real. What do they provide each other?
ML: They provide complete loyalty. Both of them are unabashed “lifers,” career soldiers. Yet they are in constant rebellion against the restrictions of military life and, more often than not, the go-along-to-get-along attitude of most of their superiors and fellow soldiers. Since they share these qualities, they look out for one another. Also, Ernie is focused strictly on the moment. He does what he wants to do, when he wants to do it. He never looks back or even ponders anything he’s done, much less regret it. George, on the other hand, is constantly evaluating every decision he makes and is riddled with regrets about the past and anxieties about the future. Both of them admire the opposite qualities they see in one another, although they don’t fully understand them.
MP: You were pretty much self-taught as a writer. Did you draw from any influential writers?
ML: There are four writers who made me realize that the type of stories I had to tell might find an audience. First, was Herman Melville. I once got in trouble (I know, it’s hard to believe) and was restricted to compound for one week. I was so angry at myself that I decided to add to the punishment by spending the week reading a classic (like the ones I wouldn’t read when I was in high school). At the base library I found Moby Dick. To my surprise, within the first few pages, I discovered that the young man, Ishmael, who was venturing off to see “the watery parts of the world” was much like me. He craved adventure and, aboard ship, he hated officers. I flew through the book, enjoying every word of it. The next was Jack London, a fellow native Californian. Read “To Build a Fire.” That is, in my opinion, the greatest single piece of prose writing in the English language. Third was Richard McKenna. After serving 30 years in the Navy, he retired as a Chief in the late 1950s and proceeded to write The Sand Pebbles which won the National Book Award. It was about common sailors and their day-to-day problems. Not the heroics that most military stories try to shove down our throats. Finally, was Darryl Ponicsan. He wrote The Last Detail. That book showed me that one could write a story about the real lives of enlisted men in the military, with all its beauty and all its squalor.
When I first set out to start writing, I had these four writers in mind and I was still on active duty in the military. My goal was to tell the story of the day-to-day life of American soldiers in Korea, and the day-to-day lives of the Korean people who dealt with them. It was a world that most Americans didn’t even know existed. In order to show that world, from the cultured environs of cocktail parties hosted by the American Ambassador to the lowest rat-infested back alleys, I figured the mystery genre was the way to go. I focused my reading on the genre: Chandler, Hammett, James M. Cain, Robert B Parker, Ross MacDonald and many others. Fortunately, I stumbled on my all-time favorite: the Matt Scudder series written by Lawrence Block. For my money, they’re still the best mystery stories in print; especially the first half dozen or so books in the series.
MP: As with several of the books, The Iron Sickle deals with repressed history. What is the danger of not knowing all of our past?
ML: The Korean War is often called the forgotten war and for good reason. People forget that Korea had a huge impact on the American strategy in Vietnam. In Korea, we were able to fight the Communists to a standstill and left the country divided into north and south. In Vietnam, the goal was the same. To keep a supposedly democratic South Vietnam and leave North Vietnam under the Communists. Many people correctly pointed out that to win the war we should invade North Vietnam (either that or withdraw completely). But the lesson of the Korean War had shown that if we threatened to overrun the north, the Communist Chinese would intervene; as they had in Korea with an estimated two to three million “volunteer” soldiers. Nobody wanted that, so years of stalemate ensued.
We also forget how much damage was done to Korea. Our bombing campaign left only “rubble bouncing on rubble.” Those the words of an American pilot. Even Winston Churchill criticized the U.S. for “splashing” napalm all over North Korea. Two to three million people died in a country of a little over twenty-five million. The trauma was inestimable. And it lingered for years, even to this day, which is what The Iron Sickle is all about.
You can ask Matin Limón your own questions when he calls into our Hard Word Book club discussion of his first Sueño-Bascom novel, Jade Lady Burning, on September 24th, at 7PM.