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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Ping-Pong Heart by Martin Limón

Soho Crime, 368 pages, $26.95

Martin Limón has steadily put forth intriguing, detail-filled, passionate books about Korea in the 1970s. His series, featuring Army CID agents George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, has done an exemplary job of combining story, character, and situation.

“Ping-Pong Heart,” the eleventh novel in the series, starts small and goes big. When the married, upstanding Maj. Frederick Schultz is robbed by a prostitute, he wants revenge, restitution, and respect. He gets none of the above when Sueño and Bascom hear quite a different story from the prostitute, Miss Jo. Then Maj. Schultz is murdered. And Miss Jo disappears.

The deeper the boys investigate Maj. Schultz’s background, the more they realize he had some potentially seriously bad juju. On behalf of the the 8th Army Provost Marshal’s office, he has been investigating military efficiency and fiscal waste throughout the country.

Captain Blood of the “Five-Oh-Worst” military intelligence batallion is not sorry to see the last of Schultz, who had investigated his outfit. He has built his little North-Korean-spy-sniffing kingdom, and his testosterone-filled heart brooks no interference, especially from Sueño and Bascom. So, to investigate Captain Blood, the boys call on Mr. Kill.

It sounds like a comic-book character convention, doesn’t it? Mr. Kill has appeared in several other books in the series. He is an enigmatic, English-speaking, martial arts-wielding heavyweight in the Korean national police force. His word carries the equivalent of imperial command, just what the boys need when they venture into non-U.S. military areas of the country.

Back on the homefront, there is something seriously amiss with Miss Kim, their CID secretary. She is being harassed by a twerp. As a Korean woman helping to support her family in an impoverished country, she already has a heavy load. That includes fending off an amorous Ernie Bascom, whose love-em-and-leave-em sensibility she doesn’t understand or tolerate. Evading a military stalker adds to her burden. Sueño and Bascom decide to teach the stalker a lesson. What they eventually find is a strange link back to their primary case.

This is what Limón has to say about Ernie in the voice of his narrator, George Sueño, obviously the brains part of the brains-and-brawn duo:
Ernie loved conflict. The only time I saw him grin from ear to ear was when people were butting heads or, better yet, swinging big roundhouse rights at one another.
Ernie plays his head-butting part well. But what of Sueño, the heart and soul of Limón’s series? He has reached the point in his relationship with Captain Leah Prevault, a military psychiatrist, at which he has to examine his feelings about Dr. Young, his previous lover and mother of his son, both of whom are currently fugitives from the Korean government. Limón does a good job of balancing the personal, ongoing stories of his main characters with the current murder investigation. Limón uses humor and humanity to depict a country he learned to love when he was a military reporter (count the references to the “Stars and Stripes”) at a turning point in its history.

In the end it is Limón’s compassion in the face of the clash of cultures that brings me back time and again. This is a superior series. This is a book with an MBTB star.

P.S. I laughed out loud at the line, “You slicky my ping-pong heart.”

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