MysteryPeople Q&A with Martin Limon

  • Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

In Ping-Pong Heart, Martin Limón’s latest case for his South-Korea-stationed 1970s Army CID cops, Sueño and Bascom, the two try to save a woman from a murder charge, yet soon get involved in the underworld of North-South Korean espionage. Martin was kind enough to talk with us about the book.

MysteryPeople Scott: What drew you to an espionage story?

Martin Limón: Remember that the George Sueño and Ernie Bascom stories are set in the early to mid-seventies, right in the heart of the Cold War. The North Koreans had plenty of spies in South Korea (and probably still do). The U.S. Army took counter-intelligence (the art of stopping spies) very seriously, not only by having plenty of CI agents around but also by constantly inspecting the security needed to protect classified information. Still, I often wondered how effective those measures were. GIs are notorious blabbermouths, not only when they’re sober but especially after a couple of drinks out in the ville.

“The main effect though was that—because of anti-war demonstrations—the Nixon Administration switched to an all-volunteer force. Deprived of the draft for the first time in memory, the Army panicked. Sub-standard recruits such as felons and men with long rap sheets and people with only a few years of education were allowed to enlist. The crime rate shot up, although as best as I can tell this information was kept hidden from the public. I saw the effects. As did George and Ernie. They had to deal with it.”

MPS: There is more focus on Korean women characters in Ping-Pong Heart than previously in your series. What did you want to convey to the reader about them?

ML: That they were having a heck of a hard time during the two decades or so after the Korean War, mainly because of economic deprivation. Some of them, like Miss Kim the secretary at the CID office, were desperate to hold onto their jobs. Others, like Miss Jo, were cast out by poor farm families unable to support an unmarried adult daughter. Of course, the entire society was suffering. What I didn’t know at the time is that the Pak Chung-hee government was deliberately neglecting the economic needs of the people in order to accumulate enough capital to invest in big-ticket items, such as shipyards to build giant oil tankers and factories to churn out automobiles. Their gamble paid off. Once the money started rolling in, the Korean government could invest in other things (like the manufacture of washers and dryers) and today South Korea is an economic powerhouse. A lot of people suffered, however, to build the foundation upon which today’s prosperity rests.

MPS: Miss Jo, the woman who Sueño and Bascom try to help, is such a well-developed character. How did she come about?

ML: Years of painstaking research.

MPS: I know some of the characters are based on people you served with. Was there someone as perverse as Strange?

ML: Yes. And some a lot worse. In the Army you work with hundreds of guys and live with them in the barracks and spend time with them off-duty. You get to know who the weird ones are and who is relatively normal. Much of my dialogue—with Strange and other characters—comes from remembering conversations I either had or, more often, overheard. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of perversities.

Culturally, I realized early on how different Korea is from the West. Not only are the buildings and the food and the clothes and the music and the art much different, but also the way people think. I was fascinated by this (and I still am). Into the middle of all this turmoil, the 8th United States Army saw fit to drop a bunch of over-paid, knuckleheaded, teenage GIs (myself included). The result was a milieu packed with stories; some humorous, some tragic. A milieu that to me is endlessly fascinating.

MPS: What kind of effect did the Vietnam War have on Asian military bases at that time?

ML: President Nixon’s policy of “Vietnamization” was in full swing during the early seventies. U.S. military units were being withdrawn and replaced by the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam). There was still an American footprint there but it wasn’t as massive as it had been. The bases in South Korea, financially, had been ignored for a number of years. Near the DMZ particularly, there were plumbing problems in the old Quonset huts that served as barracks and antiquated facilities for the troops such as mess halls, medical aid stations, etc. After the Vietnam War, those things gradually began to be corrected.

The main effect though was that—because of anti-war demonstrations—the Nixon Administration switched to an all-volunteer force. Deprived of the draft for the first time in memory, the Army panicked. Sub-standard recruits such as felons and men with long rap sheets and people with only a few years of education were allowed to enlist. The crime rate shot up, although as best as I can tell this information was kept hidden from the public. I saw the effects. As did George and Ernie. They had to deal with it.

MPS: Besides being able to draw from experience what makes your setting and period rich for so many novels?

ML: Most importantly, Korea is a four-thousand-year-old society, rich in history and culture. In ancient times, the Koreans battled fiercely with the Chinese and one couldn’t say which society would win. Gradually though, because of geography (China is much larger than Korea) and because the Chinese managed to unite (for the most part) during and after the Chin Dynasty, they became the dominant power on the Asian mainland. Culturally, I realized early on how different Korea is from the West. Not only are the buildings and the food and the clothes and the music and the art much different, but also the way people think. I was fascinated by this (and I still am). Into the middle of all this turmoil, the 8th United States Army saw fit to drop a bunch of over-paid, knuckleheaded, teenage GIs (myself included). The result was a milieu packed with stories; some humorous, some tragic. A milieu that to me is endlessly fascinating.

“Much of my dialogue—with Strange and other characters—comes from remembering conversations I either had or, more often, overheard. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of perversities.”

You can find copies of Limón’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Catch Limón in person on Tuesday, July 12th, at 7 PM, where he’ll be joined by local author Manning Wolfe and Texas author Billy Kring for a panel discussion on how to transform your professional experience into perfect material for a crime novel. 

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