Book Review: The Ville Rat
by Martin Limon
Soho Crime, 2015
Martin Limon’s superb and pugnacious series of murder mysteries set in 1970s Korea and featuring his great investigative team, sharp, cerebral George Sueno and intuitive, semi-barbaric Ernie Bascom continues in The Ville Rat. Sueno and Bascom are American sergeants in the 8th Army Criminal Investigation Division, constantly underfunded, constantly suspected by enlisted men and officers alike as they pursue their cases in the shadow of America’s twenty-year occupation of Seoul and its outlying regions. The chemistry between intense Sueno and laconic Bascom is the clear reason to follow this series, but alongside that chemistry as a draw for these books is Limon’s masterful evocation of military life, with Sueno reflecting often on all aspects of the world of the armed services:
Discipline in the army is a malleable thing. Sometimes, for example in basic training, it’s as inflexible as a Prussian riding crop. Other times, as in a headquarters garrison unit, it can be a set of unwritten rules and gentlemanly agreements, sort of like a country club full of trust-fund babies trying not to annoy one another.
The Ville Rat opens with the discovery of a dead woman fetched up on the ice of the semi-frozen Sonyu River. She’s wearing the elaborate chima-jeogori garb of a traditional highly-refined courtesan, and as Sueno and Bascom immediately point out to Gil Kwon-up, the chief homicide inspector for the Korean National Police (a fascinating character they nickname “Mr. Kill”), the woman’s corpse is just downstream from Camp Pelham, the base of the 2nd of the 17th Field Artillery – immediately raising uncomfortable suspicions about our investigators’ military comrades.
Those comrades, especially in the field, have nothing but contempt for Sueno and Bascom, and as the two begin probing the death of “the lady in the ice,” they quickly irritate their nominal superiors, most of whom are portrayed as priggish, overcompensating lifers with thin skins – exactly the kind of people guaranteed to bring out the worst in temperamental Bascom:
Phillips leaned in closer. “You will address me as Lieutenant Phillips or sir. Is that understood?”
Phillips must’ve had bad breath. Ernie leaned his head back slightly but then, without warning, snapped his skull forward and butted the helmet of Lieutenant Phillips, hard. Lieutenant Phillips’s head bounced back like a bowling ball and, startled, he took a step backward, instinctively reaching for his .45. The MP patrol closed in, at least one of them unsnapping the leather cover of his holster … All of the food and souvenir vending carts had disappeared. Along the strip, made-up faces craned out of bead-covered doorways. Some of the bar girls were walking forward now, arms crossed, but oblivious to the cold night, craving an exciting show.
Lieutenant Phillips reached for his forehead. “You hit me,” he said, incredulous.
“No,” Ernie replied. “I headbutted you. There’s a difference. If I’d hit you, you’d be flat on your ass by now.”
In short order in The Ville Rat, our heroes are embroiled in not just their murder investigation but also a very touchy case of racially-motivated violence in another unit, and Limon skillfully weaves the two plot lines together into a rapid-fire climax. It’s a bit confusing why this series isn’t better known, but since each Sueno and Bascom adventure can easily be read in isolation from the others, The Ville Rat is a fine place for newcomers to begin correcting that.