In Martin Limón’s latest Sueño-Bascom novel,The Ville Rat, his Seventies Korea-stationed Army detectives George Sueno and Ernie Bascome take on two cases, each of which pits the detectives against one of the toughest Army units operating on the North-South border. Limón takes a unique look at the black market and racism within the military. We caught up with Martin to talk about the book and the series, influenced by his own army experience.
MysteryPeople Scott: The Ville Rat focuses more on the Army culture than many of the previous books. What did you want to explore about military life?
Martin Limón: The public, I believe, has a distorted view of military life. On television you see photogenic sailors and soldiers and marines droning on in a stoic manner about whatever issue they’re reporting on. They almost seem like automatons. The army I knew was dominated by lowlifes. In the barracks you had to protect yourself at all times. And even among the higher ranking officers, the name of the game was survival and winning the competition for promotion. Self-sacrifice exists in the military, plenty of it, but in a soldier’s day-to-day life that’s always theoretical. You’re more worried about the cheaters and thieves that surround you.
Also, in the very few television shows I’ve seen about the military, the writers make it seem as if the more self-sacrificing and honorable you are, the more likely the military is to reward you. In my experience, the opposite is true. The connivers prosper. Those who are true blue often fall by the wayside. That’s why I can’t watch those shows. They make me gag.
MPS: I was surprised to find out that fire fights and terrorist attacks happen on the North-South border after the Korean war. Was that a common occurrence?
ML: During the early Seventies, when my novels are set, firefights were common although most of them involved the South Korean army. Many of them, I was led to understand, were never even reported. At that time, the U.S. was averaging about one GI killed by North Korean fire per year. The South Koreans more. But that made sense because the South Korean Divisions covered four or five times more mileage along the DMZ than we did. Also, I believe, some of the South Korean commanders were more aggressive than the Americans.
Other than the Joint Security Area near the truce village of Panmunjom, my understanding is that all U.S. forces have been moved off the front lines now. Also, the DMZ has been so heavily reinforced with fences and night-vision observation posts and state-of-the-art land mines that there is much less commando infiltration than there was in the 60s or 70s. Keep in mind that in February 1968, Kim Il-sung sent a 35-man commando team to Seoul to assassinate the president of South Korea. They almost succeeded. Later that year, over 60 infiltrators landed on the east coast of South Korea and evaded capture for some weeks. Also, in early 1968 the USS Pueblo and crew was captured by North Korea on the high seas. And in 1969 an EC-121 spy plane with over 30 U.S. sailors was shot down in international air space by the North Koreans. President Nixon never retaliated. It was a fun time to be there.
“The public, I believe, has a distorted view of military life. On television you see photogenic sailors and soldiers and marines droning on in a stoic manner about whatever issue they’re reporting on. They almost seem like automatons. The army I knew was dominated by lowlifes. In the barracks you had to protect yourself at all times. And even among the higher ranking officers, the name of the game was survival and winning the competition for promotion. Self-sacrifice exists in the military, plenty of it, but in a soldier’s day-to-day life that’s always theoretical.”
MPS: Maybe it is because I’ve got to Sueño and Bascom over previous books, but you seem to use their humor more often in The Ville Rat and it isn’t the gallows jokes you often see in police novels. What do they (or you as the author) use humor for?
ML: In recent books, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom have opened up and are talking more. It dawned on me at some point that many of the mystery authors I most admire use plenty of dialogue. (Think of the late Elmore Leonard and the very active Lee Child). Recently, I’ve allowed my characters to talk more and I let them go on even after I would have cut them off in the past. Surprising things happen; things that I think improve the stories. Not to mention that I hope the reader becomes closer to the characters. As to the humor, it just happens. Especially from Ernie. It seems that he won’t shut up until he gets a laugh.
MPS: How do Sueño and Bascom feel about The Army?
ML: They complain a lot but fundamentally they love the army. There’s an old saying in the army that you don’t have to worry until the troops stop complaining. George Sueño was an orphan growing up in Los Angeles County and for him the army is an opportunity to have gainful employment and to do a job that’s worth doing. Not to mention that he is fascinated by Korea and grateful for the chance to be there.
Ernie Bascom doesn’t much care what the world thinks of him and after serving two tours in Vietnam and becoming a heroin addict, being in the army makes it somewhat easier for him not to revert back to his old habits. Heroin, in those days, was absolutely not available in Korea (although ironically it was plentiful in Vietnam). The South Korean government actually executed more than one drug smuggler. Ernie has replaced heroin with plenty of booze. In those days, the military encouraged alcohol consumption. A quart of Gilbey’s gin cost less than a dollar on base. A shot of bourbon at happy hour in the NCO club was fifteen cents. The brass was deathly afraid of the effect of drugs on their troops and considered alcohol to be much preferable. Also, Ernie loves military law enforcement because of the excitement and the relative freedom they enjoy. It beats being in the infantry.
MPS: As an author, what makes them characters worth coming back to?
ML: They’ve become part of me. Not only George and Ernie but also Riley and Miss Kim and even Strange. As I recently told an old army buddy, when I’m writing it’s like being young again, and being back there. He was envious.
The Ville Rat comes out today! You can find copies on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.