- - Monday, September 5, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

PING-PONG HEART: A SERGEANTS SUENO AND BASCOM NOVEL

By Martin Limon

Soho Crime, $26.95, 368 pages

Robbery, mayhem and murder are spiced by sardonic military humor in this lively thriller set in South Korea in 1974 when the Cold War was a good deal warmer.

Two American Army CID sergeants — George Sueno and Ernie Bascom — cannot be described as the heroes of the plot but they certainly dominate what frequently sounds like a bar room brawl. Ernie for example, doesn’t hesitate to throw a cocktail table at a GI who annoys him. Sueno and Bascom are investigating a petty theft case when an Army major is found murdered. Their previous interest in him was aroused by his complaints that he had been robbed by a “business girl” called Miss Jo, one of the many call girls left in the wake of the Korean War. She has disappeared, which is hardly surprising, but the death of an American officer gets the attention of the CID and plunges Sueno and Bascom into a major investigation involving military intelligence.



Martin Limon clearly knows his territory, especially when the military get into a bar full of glamorous Korean women. The dialogue swings between Korean and American slang, with one young woman telling a GI “You slicky my ping pong heart.” Sueno translates this as her complaint that the man is breaking her heart in the course of what appears to be an argument over the cost of an all-nighter. There is a lot of “slicky” involved in the plot and it becomes more violent as it moves at the pace of a speeding jeep. Sueno reflects that Bascom is the best driver he has ever known but that doesn’t mean you aren’t likely to wind up dead in a car crash. The two sergeants find themselves involved in high level military operations in which U.S. Army counterintelligence is a player and they are low level actors who get blamed for everything that goes wrong. Romance is not noticeably present in the plot unless you count the fact that Sueno is searching for his illegitimate son by a Korean woman who has disappeared into a dangerous zone. He is, he makes clear, more interested in the child than its mother but he does, as he insists, want to do “the right thing” by rescuing the pair from North Koreans, although it seems unlikely he has marriage in mind. Ernie is a full-time player when it comes to the opposite sex, but he has a weakness for the beautiful Miss Kim who is a secretary in his office and uncooperative.

The villains are more conspicuous in the plot, especially Lance Blood, the brutal commander of a military intelligence battalion who takes no prisoners when it comes to getting what he wants, including betrayal of his country. His equivalent in Korean intelligence is a terrifying officer known for good reasons as Mr. Kill. It is only because Mr. Kill displays a surprising degree of humanity that the American sergeants, not to mention a charming Korean known as Officer Oh, survive at all.

Sueno and Bascom carry out their responsibilities but it is never enough for their superior officer. They even defend the behavior of the murdered major who was probably lucky to survive as long as he did, given his personal habits. And while no reader would expect a happy ending in a book like this, Sueno does get to do some of the right thing by the young woman he will never marry. But he will be able to prevent his son from falling into the hands of the North Koreans and that is a huge bonus in that strange and brutal world.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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