THE JOY BRIGADE
By Martin Limon
Soho, 2012 ($25.00)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
Sgt. George Sueno leaves his usual surroundings as a military policeman for the Eighth Army Criminal Investigation Division near Seoul, South Korea on a dangerous mission to the north — way north — North Korea. Disguised first as an Albanian merchant marine, then as a Romanian Warsaw Pact Officer, he meets with contacts who may or may not be trustworthy, searching for an ancient manuscript that may help prevent a war.
How did Sueno end up on this foolhardy mission? It is the early 1970's, and The Great Leader, Kim Il-song, is nearing retirement age. He had promised that he would reunite Korea before the end of his reign, which the South Korean and American governments take as an intention to invade South Korea in the very near future. The manuscript, which shows a series of tunnels running beneath the DMZ that separates North and South Korea, is in the possession of Doctor Yong, a woman Sueno loves and wants to save, along with the child who may be his son. Sueno speaks Korean, and he has a reputation for thinking on his feet and being able to hold his own in a fight. He also has a reputation for bucking authority, so if he is killed in pursuit of the manuscript, the Army won't mourn his loss.
Sueno is a fish out of water in a sea full of sharks, and he is not ashamed to admit he is afraid. He trusts his guide, Hero Kang because he must, but he is none too sure the man has his best interests in mind. Hero, like most of the others Sueno meets during this mission, has an agenda of his own, and insists the sergeant do some things for him before he leads Sueno to Doctor Yong. This involves having Sueno, a black belt in taekwondo, go up against a world champion in a tournament for foreigners. Sueno's good, but not as good as all that. The poor sergeant takes many beatings during the pursuit of his love and the manuscript, interspersed with bewildering moments of being treated royally. He meets the young women who make up the Joy Brigade, but he sees no joy in their faces. The whole country is gray and sad, the people frightened and paranoid, but at least they have enough to eat, provided by the Great Leader. That's not saying very much.
As he walks across mountains and crosses rivers to reach his goal, his steps are dogged by a Korean officer in black leather. Major Rhee Mi-Sok is as beautiful as she is cruel and twisted. Her idea of torture is, to say the least, unique.
The trip back to South Korea is fraught with danger, and Sueno's strength is taxed to the limit. His journey through the fields and tunnels of North Korea is at times heart-stopping, and one wonders how much one man can take and still survive. The sergeant is made of strong stuff indeed.
This is the eighth in Limon's Military police procedural series, and it departs from the usual structure. It is more a thriller than a police procedural, and Sueno is on his own in this adventure, his colleague and buddy Ernie making only a brief appearance at the end. The glimpse into the mysterious realm of North Korea is fascinating and depressing in equal measures. Limon is in top form, and I highly recommend this book.
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