The Ville Rat
It's the early 1970's in Seoul. The Korean War has been over for almost two decades. South Korea is still staggering under the loss of over 500,000 soldiers and civilians out of a population of 20,000,000. And there are still 50,000 American soldiers and non-military Americans stationed in and around Seoul.
George Sueño and Ernie Bascomb work as detectives, agents for the 8th United States Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID). They've been called in by Mr. Kill (!), a homicide inspector for the KNP --- the Korean National Police. A woman's body has been found in the near-frozen Sonyu River ("She was beautiful. Like an ice princess.") Sueño and Bascomb were invited to join the investigation because
all cops, military or otherwise, play the percentages. And with a battalion full of horny American artillerymen just a couple of hundred yards upriver, the percentages were that one of them had something to do with this.
We will be following the two of them in and around and out of various American military installations --- and Korean Bars with names like the Red Dragon Nightclub, the Kit Kat Club, The Black Star Nightclub --- looking for Colt 45. What? That Colt 45?
Nah: the malt liquor. Seems that most of the black American soldiers in Korea prefer the 14% bundle of alcohol to our usual watery beers, Schlitz, Budweiser, Millers. Colt 45 has a bigger kick.
Did you say Colt 45? Yes, and the logic behind it is convoluted (as all good clues in all good murder mystery must be convoluted: viz The Maltese Falcon).
Because shortly after the discovery of the murder of the Ice Princess, a red-headed guy zips up to Sueño and Bascomb's Jeep, tells them that she had been murdered, and speeds away. His name, they soon find out, is The Ville Rat. In Korean, maeul ui jwi. A skinny white guy with the red Afro.
Since the rat warned them, he has disappeared. But they find out that he is in the business of smuggling malt liquor into Korea for the soldiers. How? And why?
Their trek drags them through various bars that cater to black soldiers, even though these blacks don't especially care for honkies. Especially honkies who come in, flash their CID cards, and ask too many questions.
In all choice mystery novels, the gumshoes have to be cursed, abused, knocked about, shot at, and --- above all --- harassed by the police or (in this case) the military higher-ups who don't want these two jokers making them look bad.
Plus, in South Korea, in the early 1970s, the grunt soldiers who are black get screwed coming and going. Including one here named Threets who gets hustled by a white Sergent named Orgwell (!)
Who gets a bullet in the knee for his troubles.An exemplary detective novel has to have four things going for it.
Interesting detail . . .
What do we not need?
A hectoring author (we are not here to build compassion nor an enlightened world view).
Too much gore (Some of us blanch easily).
Lackadaisical plot-line (We nod off easily) . . .
Limón's action in The Ville Rat is fair-to-middling . . . complete with the traditional attempts to murder the detectives (8th Army operatives; black-marketeers; and a notable chosen instrument of mayhem, a three-wheeled cart filled with garlic. Only in Korea).
Humor? I don't recall falling into giggles over any of the dialogue here. Interesting characters? Ernie is the heavy, Sueño the smart one (he can speak Korean; have you ever tried to speak Korean?) We'll give Limón a cigar on that one.
Ville Rat is set in Korea, and it lets us in on the rich culture of that beleaguered country. For example, back when the English were still painting their faces blue, Korean poets like Hwang Ji-ni were writing elegant three-line lyrics called sijo. Limón brings this exotic art-form to our attention by hiding a fragment of a sijo poem in the sleeve of the dress of the ice lady. She was wearing a chima-jeogori, the traditional dress of Korean women who work in the equivalent job of a Japanese geisha.
The poem here is one of the most famous, but when --- because of the author's hints --- I dived a bit further into that inexhaustible source of obscure world fauna called Google, I found much more about this exotic form:
Sijo is traditionally composed with three lines of 14-16 syllables each, totaling between 44-46 syllables. A pause breaks each line approximately in the middle. It resembles a caesura but is not based on metrics.
It is a traditional form that various societies in America (improbably, in Arizona and Florida) have held regular contests, trying to find someone who can compose these using rigorous guidelines.
It seems to be not unlike haiku --- a mood piece with certain fixed rules that you break at your own peril. For example, the Sijo Contest judges at the Arizona State Poetry Society can, we suspect, be vicious if you ignore their rigid standards. One contestant was chastised as follows: "Kim experimentally employed end rhyme and broke the verse into three separate couplets, two conventions not usually used by other translators. Take care in using such devices. They can result in a poem that looks, sounds and acts so Western that it obscures its unique heritage."
Punishment not detailed, but remember, that Arizonians can get in high dudgeon if you don't pay attention to the rules, and they, like Floridians, are allowed to wear arms everywhere . . . even into obscure poetry society meetings.
My favorite, of the sijo shown here, is one by U T'ak (1262-1342) --- which all of us geezers will enjoy.
The spring breeze melted snow on the hills then quickly disappeared.
I wish I could borrow it briefly to blow over my hair
And melt away the aging frost forming now about my ears.
§ § §
Other interesting facts of Korean lore included here include (1) why there are so few guard dogs (another mouth to feed) and (2) why rich landowners may be not molested in the evening:
It was Korean custom that if someone was home and not sleeping, thieves would usually leave them alone . . . Physically overpowering a homeowner was considered a horrendous crime, a crime against society, and would more often than not land a perpetrator in prison for many years.
And on old age: "Looking older was something many Koreans strived for; they thought it gave them gravitas and respect in society, so unlike in the States, where old age was rated one step below a communicable disease."
§ § §
RALPH recently posted a reprise of some of our earlier reviews of detective novels, with my all-time favorite, Blind Moon Alley included in the same issue. Which merits, I do believe, a ten on the murder novel vector scale.
Ville Rat? Let's give this one a five for the action, four for the rambling plot, three for character interest --- but a rousing ten for the elegant study of Korean culture from those tumultuous years after the end of the Korean War.