Interview with Martin Limón

BookPeople made The Line, Martin Limón’s latest mystery with Ernie Bascome and George Sueno, two U.S. Army cops stationed in early seventies Korea, our October Pick Of The Month.  It starts with the two called to a murder scene on the demarcation bridge between North and South Korea that leads into a mystery involving the South Koreans that work for the U.S. Army. While trying to find the real killer when an innocent G.I. is locked up, they also have to locate the missing wife an officer. Martin was kind enough to give us some in-depth answers to some questions about the book, the series, and the state of both Koreas. Martin Limón joins us Friday, November 2 at 7pm to talk about the book with author A.R. Ashworth and Scott Montgomery.

The Line (A Sergeants Sueño and Bascom Novel #13) Cover ImageMysteryPeople Scott: The Line has one of the best openings of the year.  How did it come about?

Martin Limón: I’ve been to the Joint Security Area (JSA) a few times, starting in 1968.  It’s always been an intense place and there have been more than a few skirmishes over the years.  One of them, the August, 1976 axe murder incident, resulted in two U.S. soldiers being hacked to death by North Korean guards.  Ironically, the JSA is also called “the truce village of Panmunjom.”

At some point it occurred to me that this would be a good place to set a murder.  Of course, I knew who would be going up there to examine the crime scene, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom.  Then all I had to do was decide who would be murdered, what time of day they would be going up there, etc.  Once I had all that I decided to place the corpse right on the most contested spot in the world—the Military Demarcation Line—and imagined what would happen.  Not difficult. There would be an armed standoff; the North Koreans on one side, the U.S. on the other. Sort of a difficult setting for detectives to exam a crime scene but, undaunted, our boys take up the challenge.

MPS: You have George and Ernie work both a murder and a missing person case.  How did you deal with the challenge of two mysteries?

ML: I like plots and subplots, both as a reader and when I’m writing my own stories.  The challenge is to get them to blend together in some way that’s (hopefully) believable and, more importantly, for their essences to somehow complement one another.  In this case I had the Korean Noh family, who had suffered the grievous loss of their son, in the main plot and the American Cresthill family, experiencing the anguish of marital breakup, in the other.  I hope the two stories worked well together. I was actually contemplating a third subplot; that of the Korean-American lawyer, Corrine Fitch, searching for her birth mother. But it was too much for my meager intellect to work out.  Instead, it remained implied but not fleshed out.

MPS: I felt this book looks at women in both Korean and Army society.  What did you want to explore with the female characters?

ML: Military spouses and other family members often feel isolated.  Sometimes physically, as at Fort Irwin in California’s Mojave Desert where the nearest town is forty miles away.  Or at 8th Army headquarters in Seoul. Even though the 8th Army Yongsan Compound sat in the heart of a city of over 10 million souls, that city was South Korea’s capital and a teeming Asian metropolis if there ever was one.  Some of the Americans on base felt as if they were floating on a small raft atop a churning sea. And the military expects those family members (which they call dependents), and especially the wives, to follow a precise and lengthy list of unwritten rules.  Don’t ever dare embarrass your husband, number one. Accompany him to the many and varied command social events where you must smile, smile, smile. Volunteer your time to charities specified by the spouse of the commanding general. Some women rebel, by turning inward.  Others act out. I’ve seen it and it is sometimes not pretty, but always very human.

With Corrine Fitch I had the ambition (probably not realized) of depicting the ambivalence of someone returning to the country of their birth but being fundamentally a stranger.  What must that be like? What questions must arise? I didn’t take that part of the story as far as it needed to go but it still intrigues me.

MPS: How would you describe George and Ernie’s relationship with the Army?

ML: Love/Hate.

What George loves about the army is that it gives him a sense of purpose.  A job with a very specific aim: to solve crime and rescue the innocent.

What Ernie loves about the army is that it encourages him to replace heroin addiction with the perfectly acceptable alternative of alcoholism.  As a bonus, the pomposity of the army brass gives him a world of blowhards to rebel against.

What George hates about the army is their overwhelming bureaucratic desire to cover up any and all bad news.  Especially crime.

What Ernie hates about the army is they make him wear a hat, which he believes is a plot to cut him off from the universe.

MPS: Your latest books have been some of your best.  What has experience lent to your work?

ML: When I started writing, over 30 years ago, I realized immediately that this was a craft or sullen art (to quote Dylan Thomas) in which I would always keep learning—and never master.  I do think my books and short stories are a little better now, mainly because of the help of editors and agents and critics and even the occasional reader. Reader complaints, of which I’ve had some which were extremely bitter, feel like a hot needle shoved into a raw nerve.  However, I crave them. First, it proves that the person read and cared about my work. Second, it gives me a chance to evaluate the criticism and decide whether or not it is valid. Usually, it is. And once that needle sinks into tender flesh, I can never forget it. And the next time, when a similar case arises, I’m prepared to do better.

MPS: North and South Korea have been in the news even more.  What should people in the U.S. know about the culture?

ML: Someone asked me if I wrote The Line because the North Korean crisis is so much in the news lately.  The fact of the matter is that I conceived and wrote the first draft long before Donald Trump ever made his fire and fury or little rocket man comments.  In fact, back then when I started no one imagined he’d ever become president.

Since 1953 the Korean DMZ has always been in crisis.  In January 1968 a North Korean commando unit unsuccessfully attacked the Blue House, the South Korean version of our White House.  In the same month, the North Korean navy committed an act of war by boarding and commandeering the USS Pueblo on the high seas. They held the American crew in a brutal captivity for almost a year.  In April 1969, North Korea shot down an EC-121 US Navy reconnaissance plane, immediately killing 31 sailors. And there have been plenty of violations since then. South Korean military deaths, at least back in those days, were common and many of them went unreported in the international press.  The US Army averaged about one American death at North Korean hands per year.

Now these friendly fellows have the bomb.  I, for one, don’t believe they’ll ever give it up. No matter how many bows and handshakes our president provides.

Culturally, on both sides of the border, the desire for Korean reunification is great, and it’s the official policy of both governments.  From what I’ve read, Kim Jong-un’s goal in life is to reunify the peninsula under his regime. To him, mutual nuclear disarmament means that the US would withdraw our troops from South Korea and remove the South Koreans from the protection of our nuclear umbrella.  Once that happened, I believe, he’d feel free to start bullying the South Koreans and use political and military pressure to gain his aims. He knows that if he did manage to reunify Korea, even under such a brutal totalitarian state as the one he now runs, his place in Korean history as a great hero would be assured.

PICK OF THE MONTH: THE LINE BY MARTIN LIMON

A sign of a crime fiction series’ maturity is that the stories tend to get looser and in a very good way. There is less emphasis on plot and more faith put into character. The author provides stories for the protagonists to breathe, banter, and live as well as solve the crime. A prime example of this is The Line, Martin Limon’s latest to feature George Sueno and Ernie Bascome two Army CID cops stationed in South Korea during the early seventies.

Limon drops them into one of the best openings of the year. The two are called to investigate a body discovered on the demarcation bridge between North and South Korea. George and Ernie find the crime scene investigation touch and go, caught between the potential crossfire with the North Korean and U.S. Army pointing rifles at one another and the situation escalating.

The shaky political situation hounds them as they try to get proper justice served. They discover the victim to be Noh Jong-bei, a South Korean who is a soldier connected to the U.S. Army. The initial evidence leads to a private, Teddy Fusterman, a friend of Noh’s who was also seeing his sister, something the family didn’t approve of. While Sueno and Bascome believe in his innocence, the army is still more than willing to prosecute, to seemingly cool things down, and assigns them to locating a missing officers wife. The search leads them to the darker parts of Seoul and a possible link to Noh Jong-bei’s murder.

Both mysteries weave skillfully together. Limon places the reveals and reversals like the veteran professional he is and gives many of them emotional resonance. Together both stories give depth and range in the army and Korean society at the time, subtly examining the roles of women in both.

Limon also knows that the main reason we return to these books is because of George and Ernie. He gives them room to argue, discuss army life, women, and each other. We see how each complement the other without over statement and how they’ve developed a bond as brothers for justice in a system that sets that as a low priority. As much as they battle the army, though, it has become their home.

The Line strikes a perfect balance between plot and character. In doing so, it develops themes that are both deep and subtle. The story and the people in it reflect off of one another, creating an engaging mystery with a lot to say about the two clashing cultures it moves in. More importantly, it gives us two heroes we care about and wish we could share a beer with.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Manning Wolfe

 

  • Interview by MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana

Manning Wolfe will be joining Billy Kring and Martin Limón for a panel discussion about using your professional experiences to craft great crime fiction on Tuesday, July 12th, at 7 PM. Her debut novel features Austin attorney Merit Bridges. Meike Alana was able to ask her a few questions about the book and her characters before the event.

Meike Alana: Your character, Merit Bridges, is an attorney living in Austin. You’re an attorney living in Austin. What other similarities are there between you and Merit? What are some differences?

Manning Wolfe: Merit and I share a sense of justice, which is probably what brought both of us to the practice of law. We both fight for the underdog and champion women. I am not Merit, however; she is a hybrid of several lawyers – both female and male – that I’ve known over the years. She sleeps with younger men, wears designer gowns on a regular basis, and is chased by dangerous villains. I’m not nearly that glamorous.

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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.”

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Scott’s Top Ten of 2015

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

If there was a common thread through the best books of 2015, it was ambition. Authors stretched themselves by taking on large subjects or writing something much different, or taking their series characters down a different path. All of these authors raised the bar for themselves and leaped over it.


hollow man1. Hollow Man by Mark Pryor

Pryor’s smart use of point of view puts us in the head of Dominic – Austin prosecutor, musician, and sociopath – who gets involved with a robbery and to continue to tap into his darker nature when things go bad. One of the freshest and best neo-noirs to come down the pike.


the cartel2. The Cartel by Don Winslow

Winslow’s sequel to The Power Of The Dog reignites the blood feud between DEA agent Art Keller and cartel head Adán Barrera in epic fashion to show the disastrous effect of the war on drugs in Mexico. A book that both enrages and entertains.Read More »

MysteryPeople Q&A with Martin Limón, author of the Sueño-Bascom Series

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.

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Three Picks for October

ville ratThe Ville Rat by Martin Limón

The latest book to feature Sueño and Bascom, two Army CID detectives in 1970s Korea, has the detectives assigned two cases that put them up against one of the toughest and tightest units stationed on the North-South border. Limón uses an involving mystery to look at race and politics in the military for one of his best. The Ville Rat comes out Tuesday, October 6. You can find copies on our shelves after tomorrow, or order at any time via bookpeople.com.

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HARD WORD BOOK CLUB discusses JADE LADY BURNING

On September 24th, the Hard Word Book Club goes overseas and back in time with Martin Limón as he helps us discuss his novel Jade Lady Burning. The book is the first in the series featuring George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, two CID Army cops stationed in Korea during the Seventies. In Jade Lady Burning they are assigned the case of a murdered Korean girl  with a G.I. as their prime suspect. They soon discover the soldier isn’t as guilty as he looks and both the US and Korean governments want the murder swept under the rug.

Not only does the book introduce us to Sueño and Bascom, but everything that makes this series great. Limón was stationed in South Korea and always gives an authentic look at Army life overseas. His love of the country’s culture comes though as it clashes with Americans dealing with it. He uses the setting and cases to show how justice gets lost in bureaucracy and politics.

Martin Limón will be joining us, via conference call for our discussion of Jade Lady Burning. The discussion will start at 7PM, Wednesday , September 24th. Copies of Jade Lady Burning are 10% off to those who will attend.

MysteryPeople Q&A with Martin Limón

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.

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: THE IRON SICKLE by Martin Limón

the iron sickle

MysteryPeople Pick for August: The Iron Sickle by Martin Limón
Reviewed by: Scott M.

Martin Limón‘s series featuring George Sueño and Ernie Bascome is a must read. The cases of these two CID Army detectives in the South Korea of  the ’70s explore culture, bureaucracy, and the hard pursuit of justice, with an approach both hard boiled and human. The latest, The Iron Sickle, is the epitome of this.

The title refers to the weapon used by a killer who went on  base and murdered two personnel. Some think it is the work of a North Korean agent, given the communist symbolism of the sickle. The plot becomes even more convoluted when Bascome and Sueño find themselves in an investigation where neither the U.S. Army nor the Korean government want to be responsible for finding the perpetrator. With the help of a female Army psychologist, who is after Sueño as well as the killer, the two follow a trail of violence that leads to a mountain village and its dark history, where the line between victim and victimizer blurs.

Limón always creates a vivid sense of his investigators’ time and place. Like Sueño, he has an understanding and respect for the cultural surrounding. We learn much about Korean society through the detectives and their interactions with customs and protocols.   He also covers the Army politics and bureaucracy that get in the way of investigations. Sueño has an amazing explanation of how their civilian dress code makes them stand out while trying to work.

The book is also one of the best examples of Sueño and Bascome’s friendship. Sueño is an orphan from the L. A. barrio who has fallen in love with the world he’s landed in. Bascome fought through three Vietnam tours and is driven by action and an adversarial nature. The two are more than a cop-buddy relationship of opposites. We see their subtle effect on each other. Both are comrades united by a clear sense of righteous purpose that doesn’t fit the group they are in.

The Iron Sickle is a great introduction to the Sueño-Bascome series while building on what came before. Limón looks at history and culture, and at the sins of each, with two heroes who understand the true meaning of justice. You’ll be going back for the other books after you’ve read this one.


The Iron Sickle hits shelves August 26. Pre-order now via bookpeople.com