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'Nightmare Range': Crime And (Not Much) Punishment In The DMZ

At the end of the Korean War — a long, bloody, and under-memorialized conflict that claimed millions of lives — no real treaty was ever signed. Although there was an armistice in 1953, the nations of North and South Korea remain, technically, still at war. The Demilitarized Zone along the 38th parallel is one of the tensest borders on earth, with thousands of men, tanks and artillery pieces pointed at each other over minefields and barbed wire fences, fingers on triggers 24 hours a day.

This is the dangerous and complicated landscape across which author Martin Limón has, for over twenty years, staged the mysteries faced by sergeants George Sueno and Ernie Bascom, two partners assigned to police the 8th Army in South Korea during the early '70s, with the Cold War at its height and the Vietnam War nearing its conclusion. Across eight different novels and a multitude of short stories — stories which are now collected for the first time in Nightmare Range -- Limón has proven himself to be a sensitive observer of the darker angels of human nature and a skilled weaver of mystery. He's also one of the main producers of fiction about the region, and he writes from experience, having served 20 years in the U.S. Army, 10 of them in Korea.

From the moment we meet Sueno, Limón's first-person narrator and the moral center of the series, he already possesses the proper jadedness of a veteran noir detective. His prime directive isn't so much to deliver justice as it is to protect the reputation and political viability of the brass, a fact that often rubs up against the essential goodness he retains even after years on the force.

Martin Limón's series of short stories about a pair of military policemen in Korea was inspired by his time stationed there in the Army.
/ Courtesy of Soho Crime
Courtesy of Soho Crime
Martin Limón's series of short stories about a pair of military policemen in Korea was inspired by his time stationed there in the Army.

Sitting in court, watching a military tribunal deliver a wrist slap to a GI who's killed a young Korean girl with his negligent driving, Sueno narrates: "I wanted to scream. But when I saw the clean-shaven jaws of the judges and their crisply tailored jackets as they walked out, I knew it wouldn't do any good." Bascom is his laconic attack dog and occasional deus ex machina, a man large on muscle and short on temper who bears the scars of what he's seen while serving in Vietnam: "Pure horse sold by dirty faced kids through the wire, women taken on the dusty paths between rice paddies, the terror rocket attacks during innocent hours."

It's the tension between duty and honor that elevate this from familiar crime drama to something unique. Take that military tribunal, for instance: After the negligent soldier is allowed to walk (because the tribunal judged that to punish him properly would be to distract other Army drivers from focusing on the mission), Sueno and Bascom find themselves assigned to protect the solider from the revenge of the Korean girl's family. After the distasteful tasks of delivering a briefcase of money to the family and babysitting the boorish soldier, it's up to Sueno to reconcile the family's desire for vengeance (a desire he shares) with his duty to get the soldier safely aboard his plane back to the States.

In such unusual circumstances, it's hard for Limón to run into cliche. Still, these stories are "procedurals," and in following procedure, there are elements that readers will recognize, such as the trope of the exasperated superior constantly chewing out the partners for not doing it by the books. The moral universe, too, could do with even more clouding; enough of these mysteries involve violence against women that the bodies run the risk of becoming mere props for Sueno's bathos, a cold body presented to elicit some noir frustration rather than someone about whom we might have actually cared.

But it's Limón's intimate knowledge of his source material, from the brothels and bars to the vicissitudes of the local police forces, that make this collection worth reading. "The war had been over for twenty years," Limón writes, "but still it lingered: a big dumb ghost that refused to go away." The ghost here lingers not only over the fortifications of the DMZ, but also the tormented souls of those charged with maintaining it.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nick Mancusi