Monday, August 25, 2014
George Sueno, Super Spy (Or Not)
Reviewed by James L. Thane
Three out of five stars
This is the eighth entry in Martin Limon's series featuring U.S. Army Sergeants Sueno and Bascom, and the first of the books that left me only lukewarm.
The series is set in South Korea in the 1970s. Sueno and Bascom are army detectives; their job is to investigate crimes involving American soldiers and also to ensure that the American forces in South Korea are never embarrassed. For the army brass, the second half of the job description is much the more important, but Sueno and Bascom are always much more interested in finding the truth, irrespective of how the army might look when their investigation is concluded.
Sueno and Bascom are great characters; Sueno is more cerebral while Bascom is more physical and so they make a terrific team. Their investigations area always great fun to follow, especially when they run afoul of their army bosses and their counterparts in the Korean police forces. Most important is the setting, which Limon brilliantly re-creates in book after book. The reader always feels as though he or she had been dropped down in the middle of South Korea to watch the events unfold first hand.
For whatever reason, though, this book deviates from the pattern established in the series in a number of ways, none of them for the better. To begin with, Sueno carries the story alone, and Bascom makes only a very brief token appearance. The interaction between the two is one of the great strengths of these books and it's missing altogether here.
Beyond that, this isn't even a crime novel; rather it's a spy thriller and only a moderately successful one at that. The premise of the book is the belief that the Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung, is determined to launch a military offensive against the South to unite the two halves of Korea before he hands control over to his son, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il (and, as David Letterman would say, his brother, Menta Li-Il).
Rumors are circulating that there is an ancient map depicting a series of tunnels that run beneath the DMZ and that could be used as a secret passage through which the army might move men and equipment into the North behind the front lines established by the North Koreans. Sueno is sent on a secret mission into North Korea to find the map, check out the tunnel route, and report back.
The story that follows is completely implausible. Sueno, who speaks no Romanian, is smuggled into North Korea disguised as a Romanian military officer. His job is to infiltrate the North Korean military as an officer of a fellow Warsaw Pact nation. He faces one complication after another, and manages to barely escape each only by the skin of his teeth. After about the fifth or sixth time this happens, the reader is simply left shaking his or her head in disbelief, which simply cannot be suspended.
The book is saved to some extent by Limon's excellent rendering of the Korean Peninsula, it's people, society and culture. As always, this is very entertaining, but for me at least, this book lacked the charm, humor and believable intrigue that has characterized the series up to this point. I'll be very relieved to get on to the next book in the series wherein, I hope, Sueno and Bascom will be back on the job together, doing what they do best, policing the mean streets of Seoul.