Skip to content

Book Review: The Joy Brigade – Martin Limon

Ford, G. (2012). The Joy Brigade by Martin Limon, Asian Review of Books, 22 August.

The is the eighth outing for Sergeant George Sueno of the US Military Police based in 1970’s Korea. Missing for the first time—save for the last half dozen pages—is his erstwhile partner of seven episodes Sergeant Ernie Bascom. These two normally harmonise good cop, bad cop routines across the pages. While both are hard drinking denizens of the bars of Seoul’s notorious “red light” district of Itaewon, Bascom is the stereotypical US soldier abroad—doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t see why he should, at best paternalistic towards Koreans and at worst racist—while Sueno has started to learn both the language and is a black belt in Taekwondo. More importantly he treats the bargirls as equals. But this is why he’s on his own in The Joy Brigade

In the sixth book, G.I. Bones, he fell in love with Doctor Yong In-ja, the daughter of two South Korean labour activists, one of whom, her father, was assassinated by the Syngman Rhee regime. She takes her revenge twenty years on by killing the Korean gangsters responsible and flees to the North, unknown to Sueno pregnant with his son, to avoid prison and worse, leaving Sueno bereft. In book seven, Mr. Kill, she sends him a fragment of ancient map that is reputed to show underground passages through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that would facilitate an attack by whoever possessed it.

The trip is urgent. Kim Il Sung is threatening another civil war as he attempts to leave a legacy to his successor Kim Jong Il and the map would allow the US to thwart his plans. Sueno is therefore sent into the North disguised as a Peruvian sailor on an Albanian freighter that calls at Pyongyang’s port city of Nampo. Here he jumps ship and meets up with his guide, “Hero Kang”, whose task is to take him to meet the Doctor who is working to protect the North Korean Manchurian Battalion, that stands in the way of Kim Il Sung, from annihilation by his Red Star Brigade. Sueno’s first job is to access their HQ by winning the Foreigners Taekwondo tournament they hold annually and consequently being invited to celebrations where he will be entertained by the Joy Brigade and where Red Star’s order of battle will be revealed to him.

Sueno uses guile and dirty tricks to achieve his goal, meets the Joy Brigade—composed of North Korea’s most beautiful women – who service the top leadership and is helped by “Hero” daughter, herself prostituted into the Brigade, to obtain the plans. Kang and daughter sacrifice themselves to allow him to escape and reach the Doctor and the Manchurian Brigade. Ultimately it’s all useless. Sueno gets the map and his family to the South but the US military refuses to save the Brigade which is wiped out. Consequently Sueno refuses to hand over the map and so the Doctor once more and his son are forced to flee. It ends at a new beginning with him seeing one of his North Korean tormentors—the exquisitely beautiful Rhee Mi-sook – dressed as a South Korean Army major.

Limón writes well. His earlier books were masterful in terms of the accuracy of detail, but here in new territory he fares less well in both time and space. Kim Il Sung was at the height of his powers in the early 1970s and in no mood to pass on power to his son who at the time was learning English in Malta. Equally it was the period of the Partisan Generals in North Korea when Kim surrounded himself with his comrades from his “Manchurian Brigade” of Anti-Japanese guerrillas. Also the idea of the 55 km train journey from Nampo to Pyongyang taking many hours, time enough for lounging in the restaurant car, is improbable, while a diversion to Hamhung on the way to the DMZ from Pyongyang maybe a feint too far to be believable. Nevertheless James Church and his Inspector O series of detective novels set in the North have finally found a companion in Sergeant Sueno and I’m sure we will be seeing more of him and Rhee Mi-sook in the near future.