The Iron Sickle by Martin Limon

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Martin Limon served his country for 20 years, and over the course of nine novels (including this one) and one short story collection has chronicled the experiences of the 8th US Army in South Korea following the war there. Crucial to the series’ success has been his ability to describe how the indigenous population were caught between what were more or less a military dictatorship and an occupying force. These stories are told through the eyes of CID agent George Sueno, practically the only American soldier to have bothered learning Korean.

The thoughtful Sueno, and his partner Ernie Bascom, a gangly firebrand full of charm but seemingly unable to stop and think, are charged with investigating crimes that involve American personnel. The vast majority involve drunk GIs on leave to Itaewon – the entertainment district in Seoul closest to the Army base with its nightclubs and prostitutes. Some are more complicated, perhaps involving Koreans, and the 8th Army has to collaborate with either the Korean National Police (KNP) or the Republic of Korea Army (ROK). It takes an experienced investigator to read between the lines of the reports received from either arm of the state, which seek to confuse or misinform with every garbled sentence.

At first glance, the murder of the head of the Army Claims Unit – that body charged with verifying damages claimed by angry citizens against the army during its exercises – should fall squarely into the latter category. The suspect was a disguised Korean civilian and the weapon was an iron sickle, but Sueno and Bascom are being kept at arms length. It seems US and Korean top brass think it’s in everyone’s interest to declare this a terrorist attack from the communist North, and free thinkers like Sueno who might just want to investigate before reaching a conclusion should think again. That stance lasts just a few days, because then a US MP is killed and his colleague from the KNP is injured. Sueno nearly stumbles onto the killer but loses him in the rabbit warren of back alleys in Itaewon. Instead he finds a message from the killer – a dead rat hanging upside down in a wooden frame – but what can it mean?

Running out of leads, and under pressure to close this before the South Korean army find a patsy, Sueno reaches out to the secret asylums of Korea using an army psychiatrist as go between. What he discovers is evidence of a war crime and the breaking of one of the last human taboos. Always one step behind the killers, the detective comes to realise that he and his partner are being asked to bear witness to something both America and Korea have wanted to keep hidden, but the killers want reparation, not just publicity, and the price to be paid is in blood.

The best books work on many levels, and The Iron Sickle is no exception. It combines a superior procedural investigation with a look at a culture and a history that we might not otherwise receive our attention. What’s more, it feels totally authentic. Undoubtedly the author’s own experience serving for 10 years in Korea have helped him immensely. The ninth novel is as fresh as the first, and does for South Korea what James Church’s Inspector O novels have done for the North.

Soho Crime

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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