Of Martin Limón’s Korean-based series featuring U.S. Army criminal investigators George Sueño and Ernie Bascom , author Lee Child declared the books “easily the best military mysteries in print today.” Bookpage concurred in the judgment, noting that “Limón has crafted some of the finest military mysteries on offer.” The seven books in that series, all published by Soho, include Jade Lady Burning, Slicky Boys, Buddha’s Money, The Door to Bitterness, Wandering Ghost, G.I Bones, and the most recent, Mr. Kill, from 2011. Part police procedurals, part thrillers, Limón’s novels, as Michael Connelly noted, “take you away to a brand new world.”
In a starred review of Mr. Kill, Publishers Weekly raved: “Excellent…A vivid view of Asia, from the Demilitarized Zone to the Yellow Sea, and an insightful look at the era lift this fine entry.” Booklist, in its starred review, noted: “This series is a must not only for procedural fans but also for anyone who enjoys crime fiction set in distinctive international locales.” Library Journal joined in the chorus of praise for this seventh installment, observing: “Twenty years on, this series remains remarkably sharp and fresh. Featuring a fast pace, nuanced characters, respect for the locals and their culture (Sueño speaks Korean), and plenty of twists to keep readers guessing, this is military crime fiction at its best.”
Martin, welcome to Scene of the Crime. Reviewers have highly commended your rendering of South Korea in the Bascom and Sueño novels. Perhaps we could begin by talking about your connection to Korea.
The United State Army sent me to Korea in 1968 when I was still a teenager. The country stunned me: acres of green rice paddies between cloud-capped hills, skinny boys riding the backs of oxen, straw-hatted women squatting in wet fields, straw-thatched farm houses looking like something out of the Brothers Grimm. Even the produce was different: the pears round and fat, the watermelons small, the cabbage huge and rectangular. It soon became apparent to me that Korea was more than just a foreign country. It was a culture that had spent the better part of four thousand years developing independently from the culture in which I had been born.
Most of my fellow soldiers reacted with scorn. They hated the fact that they had to walk everywhere, that they couldn’t go cruising on a Saturday night; that they couldn’t buy fast food, or even a decent chili dog. They hated kimchee breath.
I loved it. I took U.S.O. tours to hidden grottos and lakes and ancient temples. I reveled in the fact that Korean TV only allowed commercials between programs, not during them. And I enjoyed the safety of the streets, where gun control was total and what a policeman said was law.
But mostly I fell in love with the people, at how grateful they were that we had saved them from the Communists during the Korean War, at how polite they were and how tolerant of our foreign ways.
Did you consciously set out to use Korea as a “character” in your books?
When I left after that first year, I couldn’t get Korea out of my mind. Later, I studied Chinese, then some Japanese, and finally re-enlisted in the Army and returned to the place that kept calling me. This time, I threw myself into the study of the history and the culture and the language. Over a twenty year military career, I spent ten of those years in Korea–and I would have spent more if the Army hadn’t forced me, during my last four years on active duty–to return to the States as a recruiter. It was there, while living in San Francisco, that I began to write.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I read Raymond Chandler. I read Ross MacDonald. I read Lawrence Block. And in the dark of the morning, while fog horns moaned, only blocks from the streets where Dashiell Hammett once roamed, I began to write.
I wrote of what I loved. I wrote of Korea. Of how it had been in those days, of the beauty, of the sadness. I continue to write.
Martin, many thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on Korea and the spirit of place in fiction.