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Thursday, November 5, 2009

G. I. Bones, by Martin Limón (hardcover, $24)

What most of us know about the Korean War has been garnered from "M*A*S*H" reruns. What Martin Limón gives us is a complicated and dark look at South Korea twenty years after that war officially ended. In 1970s Korea, the U.S. still maintains a heavy-handed presence. George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are Army CID officers charged with solving crimes by and against G.I.s.

In this sixth book in Limón's series, Sueño and Bascom are charged with finding two things: the bones of a soldier who has been missing for twenty years and the wayward daughter of an Army bigwig.

In an eerie start to the book, Sueño and Bascom are brought to the home of a local fortune-teller. She tells them that the spirit of the long-dead soldier will not rest until his bones have been returned home. Because Sueño has a long-standing crush on Dr. Yong, the woman who brought him to the fortune-teller, he agrees to investigate the case. Sueño and Bascom's lives are complicated when a colonel's teenaged daughter apparently steals money from her father and runs away with a private, and they are ordered to find her, the private, and the money. Strangely, everything eventually ties into the mysterious "Seven Dragons," underworld lords of Seoul.

Limón takes his readers behind closed doors to see the fragile world of a Seoul that is still struggling with post-war problems: poverty, black market stealing, orphaned children, and an extensive redlight district. There is tip-toeing by both the South Koreans and the U.S. military about jurisdiction over crimes. Itaewon, the redlight district of Seoul, is not officially condoned by the military, but the military often turns a blind eye to its activities. It is in Itaewon that most of the action, both past and present, occurs.

Limón's series still has the ability to shock me. His depiction of Korea during the 50s and 70s is bleak, even as he allows rays of humanity and kindness to peek through. It is that way with G.I. Bones. With the characters of Moretti and Cort, American G.I.s, Limón seeks to balance the oafish and generally imperialistic picture of Americans abroad. With the characters of Dr. Yong and Miss Kwon, a young prostitute, he puts sympathetic faces on the sad stories of survival.

Martin will join us at Murder by the Book on Sunday, November 8, 2009, at 4:00 p.m. The public is invited to this free event.

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