The Nightmare Range – Martin Limón’s 14 Book Korean War Epic
Hardboiled mystery converges with military history in Martin Limón’s George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series. For the nearly thirty years, Limón has been chronicling these two fictional US Army Central Intelligence Division detectives stationed in South Korea in the 1970s. The cases bring the detectives face-to-face with the political and social impact caused by the military’s presence and the all-too-human toll on Korean civilians and US military personnel alike. Never one to shy away from uncomfortable truths, Limón’s prose is as unflinching as it is sympathetic. Although Sueño and Bascom may seem tough and world weary on the outside, underneath they are acutely sensitive to the personal suffering and cultural clashes surrounding them. From black market activities and corrupt government contracts to human tracking and the exploitation of sex workers, the detectives are well aware of their own complicity in this network of vice and violence.
Sueño and Bascom are back on the job in The Line, the 14th and most recent book in the series (13 novels and 1 short story collection). Hitting all the hallmarks of excellence readers have come to expect and love from the previous books—authentic behind-the-scenes details of military life, richly detailed insight into Korean culture, and a case that’s tough to crack—The Line finds Sueño and Bascom called to the JSA (Joint Security Area), 800 meters diameter of neutral but very tense and heavily guarded land between North and South Korea. The victim is KATUSA Corporal Noh Jong-bei, a member of the Korean Augmentation to the US Army. The US and North Korea both deny responsibility for the murder and blame each other. Meanwhile, the KNP (Korean National Police) want to pin it on a US soldier. All sides want to close the case as quickly as possible, and any of the proposed culprits could ignite another war. The closer that Sueño and Bascom get to solving the case, however, the more it appears someone high up does not want the truth to come out. When they are reassigned to the case of an officer’s missing wife, they find themselves deep in a different murky and volatile North-South mystery.
The genesis of The Line, Martin Limón revealed in an interview with Soho Press, is a mixture of truth and fiction based on his own experiences from his twenty year career in the military (half of which were in Korea). “I spent many years as a GI in Korea and made a number of trips to the JSA. The tension there between the soldiers from the north and the soldiers from the south was always intense. Occasionally people have been killed. I personally witnessed a cameraman knocked to the ground by a North Korean soldier and an American officer ordering him not to move until the danger had passed. It occurred to me that this would be a delightful spot to place a fictional murder.”
What distinguishes Limón’s series, in addition to its setting, are his protagonists. Sueño and Bacom may be born from the classic private eye tradition expressed by Raymond Chandler in his landmark essay “The Simple Art of Murder”—“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.”—but more than just recycled clones of Chandler’s iconic Philip Marlowe, Limón’s characters are nuanced and complex, products of their time and experience but not cliches.
Sueño is an honest man in a dishonest world. A Mexican-American raised in the Los Angeles foster care system, Sueño weathered prejudice and neglect growing up. His background not only makes him more sensitive to the racial and class issues that affect the victims and witnesses he deals with, but also gives him deep sympathy for the Korean-American children from the Korean War two decades earlier, children who (like himself) have been abandoned by their fathers and are not fully accepted by society because of their racial background.
Whereas Sueño is introverted and approaches cases with empathy and intellect, Bascom is an extrovert and only uses his head when headbutting is needed (and, sometimes, it is). A Vietnam vet recovering from a drug habit picked up during his two tours of duty, Ernie now quietly drowns his suffering in alcohol. As his partner observed, “His placid exterior hid a soul that had written off the world as a madhouse. Looks were deceiving. Especially in Ernie’s case” (“–Nightmare Range”).
Together, the duo form a partnership built on moral integrity and a shared sense of rebellion, resistance, and righteousness. Never ones to kowtow to authority, they frequently disobey commands (especially when ordered off a case), wind up in physical altercations, or find themselves behind bars, all in the name of bringing out the truth. Frequently, the truth is revealed too late to save the victims—but neither Sueño nor Bascom are willing to let their suffering go unacknowledged. In an inhuman world, they refuse to concede their own humanity, whatever the cost may be.
Sueño and Bascom’s first outing was Jade Lady Burning (1992), a novel that sets the tenor for much of the series: a young woman, Pak Ok-suk, is found bound and burned to death in her shack in Itaewon, the red-light district of Seoul. The prime suspect is her GI boyfriend, Specialist Johnny Watkins. Digging into Pak’s past, however, reveals not only nefarious forces at work, but also a deeper sense of tragedy than the detectives could have imagined. “My reasons for wanting to solve the case went even deeper. When I had been moving from home to home, handled as just another number by an overburdened bureaucracy it had been the odd individual who had taken an interest in me that had saved me. They had kept me from drowning in despair,” admits Sueño. “I owed something to Miss Pak Ok-suk and Mr. Watkins.” Their dedication to Pak Ok-suk, and their compassion to all the victims impacted by the case, is a character-defining moment for Sueño and Bascom.
The duo’s next novel-length outing was Slicky Boys (1997), in which they agree to deliver a note from a woman in a bar to a British soldier. After the soldier is found murdered, Sueño and Bascom must infiltrate a ruthless local gang to find the killer. In Buddha's Money (1998), the daughter of a retired officer-turned-smuggler is held for ransom. The price? A coveted jade skull that dates back to Genghis Khan. Things get very personal for Sueño in The Door to Bitterness (2005), in which he is mugged and his stolen ID and pistol used in holdups. As the crime wave continues and more people are murdered, Sueño feels responsible and goes to great lengths to apprehend the killers, clear his own name, and ease his conscience. In The Wandering Ghost (2007), Seuño and Bascom go in search of a missing female officer, Corporal Jill Matthewson, and find themselves face-to-face with a vice ring lead by their own military—and, perhaps, the ghost of a young girl who was run over by an Army truck.
G.I. Bones (2009) finds the pair back in Itaewon with their hands full juggling a missing officer’s daughter, the murder of several bar owners, and a G.I.’s ghost who won’t leave a fortune teller alone! Tensions are running high in Mr. Kill (2011) after a soldier rapes a mother on a train—and US-Korean relations erupt when the soldier escapes. Sueño sneaks across enemy lines in search of a map of secret tunnels in order to prevent a North Korean take-over in The Joy Brigade (2012).
Sueño and Bascom find themselves breaking orders once again in The Iron Sickle (2014) as they take it upon themselves to find the sickle-wielding murderer who broke into their base and murdered a claims officer. The pair are back in hot water in The Ville Rat (2015) after they refuse to stop investigating the murder of a young woman wearing a ceremonial dress with a poem hidden in its sleeve. In Ping-Pong Heart (2016), a major who previously accused a bar girl of stealing fifty dollars is found murdered, and the trail leads Sueño and Bascom to the major’s own ongoing investigation of military intelligence responsible for tracking North Korean spies. And in The Nine-Tailed Fox (2017), several soldiers have gone missing and the main suspect is a woman believed to be a mythic shapeshifting fox known as a gumiho.
In between these novels have been sixteen short stories and one novella, which have been collected in Nightmare Range (2014). The title story, originally published in 1993, is a perfect distillation of the Sueño and Bascom series. A “business girl” is found murdered in the fields near the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), an area known as “Nightmare Range.” Tracing the military unit that was previously stationed there, and therefore locating the murderer, is easy for the detectives. But facing the brutality of the crime, the remorselessness of the killer, and the indifference of society, the police, and the military—that is the difficult part, and the finale of this story is achingly chilling.
By infusing classic private eye tropes and archetypes into first-hand experience from his own military tenure, Limón has created a literary world that is deeply rooted in a specific historic moment and uncanny in its timeliness and, ultimately, timeless. Sueño and Bascom are truly detectives for all seasons because gripping stories of suspense, and of gumshoes trying to bring light into a world of darkness, are always in fashion.
The publication of The Line is of particular importance because it was Sueño and Bascom’s first mystery, Jade Lady Burning, that was the first of our books to be branded as Soho Crime. In honor of twenty-seven years and fourteen books together, we crack open a bottle of OB beer and say to Mr. Limón, Mr. Sueño, and Mr. Bascom, “Cheers!”
THE LINE, the fourteenth book in the George Sueño and Ernie Bascom series, is available in hardcover and ebook. PURCHASE HERE
Martin Limón retired from military service after twenty years in the US Army, including ten years in Korea. He is the author of twelve previous books in the Sergeant George Sueño series: Jade Lady Burning, Slicky Boys, Buddha’s Money, The Door to Bitterness, The Wandering Ghost, GI Bones, Mr. Kill, The Joy Brigade, and Nightmare Range. He lives in Seattle.
EXCERPT FROM THE LINE:
The Imjin River rushed, gray and churning, toward the Yellow Sea. A South Korean soldier used his flashlight to check our emergency dispatch, then shouted back to his comrade, who in turn barked guttural phrases into a field radio.
“What’s the hangup?” Ernie asked.
“They’re worried about sabotage,” I said. “All along the DMZ.”
“Us?” Ernie asked. “Our motives are pure.”
“Maybe they think we’re Russian spies,” I said.
Ernie crossed his arms. “Tell them I don’t even like vodka. Makes me puke.”
“Which designates it as unique amongst alcoholic beverages.”
A convoy of M48 Patton tanks rumbled up behind us, adding a layer of urgency to the guards’ discussion. Finally, the soldier on the radio walked toward us and waved his arm.
“You go,” he said, motioning toward the bridge. CONTINUE READING