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Monday, July 6, 2020

G. I. Confidential by Martin Limón

Soho Crime, 384 pages, $26.95

There are very few series which have gotten better along the way. The George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series set in 1970s Korea is one of the winners. Sueño and Bascom are CID investigators with an Army base outside of Seoul. “G. I. Confidential” is Martin Limón’s fourteenth book in the series, and he is still going strong.

Korea in the 1970s has no K-pop. It does have a dictatorship, however. There are no trendy Korean BBQs, except in Korea. And those are not trendy; they just are. There are no Kia cars in the U.S., but there are kimchi cabs in Seoul.

On average during the 1970s, there were about 40,000 soldiers stationed in South Korea. They ostensibly were keeping the peace between North and South Korea at the DMZ. The U.S. was also supporting a dictator, Park Chung-hee, who would rule with an iron fist until (spoiler alert) his assassination in 1979. However, at the time of “G. I. Confidential,” Park is very much alive.

Tensions with North Korea are high. The U.S. walks on eggshells to manage and/or sidestep the turbulent internal South Korean politics, and to run its own part of the DMZ. Into the reality of South Korea at the time (a nebulous sometime in the 1970s), Limón inserts his own dramatic inventions. 

Non-Koreans are robbing banks in Seoul. The descriptions given by witnesses of the first robbery identify the men as U. S. soldiers. They are carrying military weapons. They are driving a military vehicle — with identifying marks taped up. In the second robbery, someone is killed with a bullet. Although Sueño and Bascom were not originally assigned the robberies, they take the cases upon themselves — because the CID originally assigned idiots to investigate.

Sueño and Bascom have to consult with their scary friend, Mr. Kill of the Korean police. He speaks impeccable English, knows everybody, and hears everything almost before it happens. But Mr. Kill is hampered in solving the bank robberies because he is not American. The three investigators have a strong alliance developed over several books. There is no doubt the robbers will be caught. However.

Complicating matters is a case that seems to be about a relatively trivial matter, but looks are deceiving. A photograph has appeared in the alternate newspaper, the trashy “Overseas Observer.” That is, it is the alternative to the “The Stars and Stripes,” the official U.S. military newspaper. (As a sidenote, author Limón worked for “The Stars and Stripes” in Korea during the 70s.) The photo is of Caucasian women in a U. S. military truck, with the caption that they are being taken north to the ROK (Republic of Korea) headquarters at the DMZ for “entertainment.” Blustery head honchos want Sueño and Bascom to put a damper on the story before the news gets out stateside.

When Sueño and Bascom journey north, they discover a greater mystery than women being trucked up north. There is a subtle but definite tension between the ROK commander and the U.S. commander at the DMZ. Also, it is rumored the U. S. commander, Lt. General Abner Jennings Crabtree, has a few screws loose, and the only thing saving his bacon is his assistant, Screech Owl Tapia. There are rumors the ROK commander, Major General Bok Jung-nam, has a few lose screws himself. The only thing keeping him from exploding apparently is a mysterious woman, Estrella. Was she one of the women in the truck? Why does Crabtree seem to know her?

And who the heck is Katie Byrd Worthington and why is she sticking her nose into everything?

It turns out Katie Byrd Worthington is responsible for a lot of the scandalous material being published in the “Overseas Observer.” She is its reporter in Korea, and she already has given Sueño and Bascom publicity (of the bad sort) over the first bank robbery. She also has connections. She also has the goods on our heroes. She also helps them some. She is inescapable.

Add a killer to the general chaos. Someone is trying to kill either Sueño or Bascom, or both, or maybe Katie Byrd Worthington. There are a lot of things to keep the investigators and an intrepid reporter awake at night.

This is a tremendous mix of story elements, including one carry-over item from the other books. The story builds to a crescendo in which bombs boom and rifles erupt, an honest-to-goodness military engagement. You can’t get any more crescendo-y than that! The end story was so convincing that I had to Google some of the characters involved. It turns out the events at the end are just fiction, but wowee-wow-wow, what a stunner.

Gomapsumnida, Mr. Limón! MBTB stars and stripes for “G. I. Confidential”!

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