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Book Review: Nightmare Range – Martin Limon

Ford, G. (2013). Nightmare Range by Martin Limon, Asian Review of Books, 18 October.

Martin Limón spent twenty years in the U.S. Army—half of that in Korea—before his retirement to Seattle. We have no idea how good a soldier he was, but at least his time in Korea provided the solid bedrock of experience that enabled him to launch and sustain his splendid series of George Sueño and Ernie Bascom detective stories.

Over more than twenty years, Sergeants Sueño, a Mexican-American, and his irascible rowdy partner Bascom in the 8th Army CID have teamed up to solve crimes involving U.S. soldiers in Korea, saving the top brass from being embarrassed and walking that thin line between their orders and their conscience.

The books are set in the time and space from less than a decade after the the end of the Korean War until President Park Chung-hee’s “miracle on the Han River”. From the first, Jade Lady Burning, in the late 1970s until the eighth and last, they have kept their readers entertained in a world of poverty and prostitution, racism—foreign and domestic—and economic division, corruption and authoritarianism, both indigenous and military.

Here in Nightmare Range, our two sergeants transition from full-length novels to the short story format with sixteen stories—the overwhelming majority of which previously appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine between 1991 and 2008—and a previously unpublished 66-page novella “The Dragon’s Tail”.

Sueño is the only military detective to speak Korean—which is all too believable—and the pair therefore get the cases where civilians and military are in conflict. All too often, these hinge around the activities of the black market, the ubiquitous street girls and graft. In “The Woman from Hamhung”, a corrupt captain tangles with black-market copper wire, while in “The Gray Asian Sky” we have an off-duty US soldier dying at an Anti-Government demonstration. “Seoul Story” has an orphaned destitute Korean boy searching for his missing Aunt and in “Seoul Mourning”, a thirteen-year-old Korean schoolgirl is killed by the reckless driving of a GI; “Pusan Nights” has U.S. soldiers preying on visiting sailors from the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk.

Nightmare Range is Limón back at his best. His previous book, The Joy Brigade, was disappointing as he tried moving Sueño on to new unknown territory, setting the action in an unconvincing North Korea. (As they say, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Leave the North to “James Church” and his Inspector O.) But here we are back at the center of the action with white U.S. army wives attempting to intimidate Korean wives and girlfriends, murderous GIs killing to cover up their crimes and walk-on parts for Korean mystics, shaman and gangsters.

Nightmare Range is not for the sentimental. The good guys don’t always win, and the victims don’t always get justice. In that sense, Limón is very Korean and all the better for it.