Review: MR. KILL by Martin Limón

MrKillLimonMartin17157_fIn the Republic of Korea (aka South Korea) in 1974 the US Army is a strong presence. When a young woman is brutally raped on a passenger train by someone she identifies only as a ‘big-nose’ (i.e. a foreigner) the local community’s attitude towards the Americans in their midst sours rapidly. Given that almost all the foreigners in the country are G.I.s Army criminal investigators George Sueño and Ernie Bascom want to find the rapist. However, in the absence of absolute proof the Army hierarchy refuses to acknowledge the culprit is one of theirs and assigns the pair to other duties too, including providing security for a group of female country and western singers who are touring the military bases to entertain the troops.

There was a lot to like about this book, perhaps most notably its vivid depiction of a particular time and place. Martin Limón had a long career in the US Military, a good portion of which was spent in Korea, and his perspective, somewhere on a scale between those that might be provided by a native and a tourist, serves the story well. He clearly knows both Korea and the military intimately and his depictions of both cultures are sensitive but not overly sentimental. I especially liked that the strengths and weaknesses of both are shown and there is an almost complete lack of the kind of sycophancy that could easily have existed in this tale. I won’t pretend I know enough about Korea or the military to be able to determine if these depictions are accurate, but they certainly felt very realistic to me and I was quickly and completely transported to the setting.

The story too is quite captivating, providing ample opportunities for the complexity of Korean-American relations to be explored. The investigation appears at the outset to require a relatively simple elimination of a small pool of suspects until there is a single one remaining. Even though the rapist may have already escaped the train at an earlier stop by the time Korean police and the Army investigators board in Seoul there are ticketing and travelling restrictions that should mean the suspect pool is small. However, eliminating particular individuals from the list of suspects does hamper, indeed derail, the investigation at several points even though Sueño and Bascom happily combine forces with a highly respected Korean homicide detective (whose name provides the title of the novel). These delays and the addition of further brutal crimes by the same suspect build a tension that really doesn’t let up until the final pages of the novel.

I have been known to claim that I don’t need to like a fictional character in order to like the book in which they appear but I do need to believe that such a person might exist. And while I can think of many instances where this has proven true (i.e. I’ve enjoyed a book despite its unlikeable but credible characters) MR. KILL nearly became the exception that proved the rule. I found one half of the crime-fighting duo here, Ernie Bascom, so utterly repugnant that I struggled to read the passages in which he appears. He is not particularly stupid (though he goes out of his way to appear so) but is driven solely by his base needs (hitting, screwing and drinking alcohol). He carries brass knuckles wherever he goes and uses them, or his bare fists, without even a hint of provocation (heaven forbid someone should stare at this thug for too long), sees women as nothing more than potential (or actual) sex partners and any 20 minute-long window of free time in his day is good for nothing other than getting drunk. I’ll accept that he is realistic (though happily I don’t know any men who are so shallow and thuggish) and so theoretically I should have been able to enjoy the book despite his presence but it was, excuse the language, bloody difficult at times. Ernie’s partner and the duo’s lead investigator George Sueño is a far more engaging, nuanced character with an inner life of some interest who is one of the few American soldiers who has taken the trouble to learn the local language. However I think I would have enjoyed him a lot more if I could have stopped myself from wondering why he didn’t push his testosterone-fuelled moron of a partner under the speeding blue train so we could all be rid of him.

So, brutish tough-guy moron aside, I did enjoy MR KILL for its enveloping depiction of an unfamiliar exotic setting, its intelligent treatment of sensitive cultural issues and its complex but satisfying storyline.  There are six earlier novels and one subsequent tale in the series (so far) and I am very tempted to read more, though I’ll need a long break from the insufferable Ernie first.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Soho Press [2011]
ISBN 9781569479346
Length 375 pages
Format hardcocer
Book Series #7 in the Sueño and Bascom series

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7 Responses to Review: MR. KILL by Martin Limón

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Bernadette – As always, an excellent and thoughtful review. The U.S. presence in Korea has meant a very complicated relationship between the countries and although I am absolutely not knowledgeable about what it’s like there, it’s good to hear that it’s portrayed in some complexity here. Like you I’m not thoroughly familiar with military life. However I live not far from a very large military installation and there are another few within quite reasonable driving distance. I’m sorry to say that there really are thugs like Bascom out there. They are, to be honest, very few and far between at least where I live. Very much the exception rather than the rule. But they’re there. So while I don’t blame you for your feelings (I got the same feeling just reading your post) I can say Bascom isn’t completely over the top. His repugnant personality aside, this one does sound like a novel very much worth reading. Thanks.


  2. Norman Price says:

    Bernadette- a close friend was in Korea with the RADC [Royal Army Dental Corps]. He was in their HQ in Tokyo, still suffering the results of sea sickness from the long journey, looking at a map with pins stuck in it. He asked with some trepidation what a particular pin stuck some way up the Korean Peninsula was, and all ideas of Geisha girls [he was only 18] disappeared when the reply came. “That is our forward unit and you are off to it tomorrow”.


  3. Kathy D. says:

    Am glad to see this review. I’ve wondered about this series. I’m not a particular fan of military bases or troops anywhere at this point so the setting didn’t appeal to me especially since millions died during the Korean War, unnecessarily so in my view.
    And now that I’ve read about Bascom, that may steer me clear forever.
    However, I enjoyed your thorough and candid review. It tells me what I want to know.


  4. You had me at South Korea but lost me with Ernie. Ugh. If this character ever does land under the speeding train, let me know so I can start reading the series.


  5. Belle Wong says:

    This sounds like an interesting read, especially the exploration of Korean-American relations, but I’m not so sure about Ernie. Unlikeable characters do tend to put me off a book.


  6. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    I’ve read what I think is the first in the series, Jade Lady Burning. I found it a fascinating crime novel, but verging in places on unredeemably brutal. That said, the writing was fantastic and the setting totally gripping.


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