Wednesday, July 3, 2013

My Native Land

Independence Day baubles, bangles and beads are catching my eye everywhere I go. Already travelers are grousing about how long it will take them to get to their July 4th celebration. It is a memorable day, and in my family our annual ritual is to rewatch 1776, the musical.

When I was growing up in a far-away place, the Fourth of July was not exactly a day like any other, but of course it was not a holiday and I went to school as usual. But since I was an American citizen, through my parents, and there were many others like me we did celebrate. Our heritage was important to us and when we sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" we sang all four verses and we knew all the words. In fact, we knew all the words to a few other patriotic songs as well. We stayed connected while in our home away from home.
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land?
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,
From wandering on a foreign strand?
(Sir Walter Scott)
There are American expats all over the place, and these days we like to remember our members in uniform among them. Martin Limón reminds us about the US Army in Korea in Slicky Boys.

George Sueño and his partner, Ernie Bascom, are both grateful to the army. What for? For George it is because he has a real life, money coming in, and a job to do. He and Ernie are CID investigators for the 8th United States Army in Seoul, Korea. They wear suits and do important work, something George never thought he would do growing up in East LA. Ernie's Chicago youth also left much to be desired.

8th Army PX
After work, these two friends and partners spend their free time in Itaewon, a seedy part of town filled with bars and businesswomen. On this occasion, they do a favor for one of the girls they meet and it results in the death of a British soldier. It turned out that he was a little shady, and as the CID investigators they need to find his murderer before they themselves are in hot water for perhaps leading him to his death.

Part of the investigation reveals connection to a widespread systematic thievery of the American enclaves. After the devastation of the Korean War 20 years before, people were desperate and starving. In the middle of these wastelands were American military settlements surrounded by barbed wire, and these were the only places with food, clothing and shelter. The people would barter with the GIs for the wealth they held, be it so small as a used bar of soap. Others were more aggressive, using thievery. "Slick boys" is what the GIs called them, and the Koreans softened it to "slicky boys." Many were exactly that; boys of 6 to 10 years old. They would slip through the wire and take anything that could fit in their pockets.

In George Sueño's time, they seemed very organized and he wanted to find out just how much. What he found impressed him, because in a way there was a certain honor, since the losses to the American compounds were always kept just below what the US Government allotted for. No greed was permitted. In this way, they also hid from investigations.

As Sueño's investigation proceeds, he feels that he is becoming wrapped in the tentacles of a giant squid. There are more brutal murders and the partners find far-reaching fingers in the pie, such as the North Koreans, the Korean Police, and the Korean and the US Navy. The case is dragging them down to the depths of evil. On the surface, at least part of the problem is the loss of military secrets.

Sueño has to lower himself to abide by the dictates of common thieves, but this did not really bother him. He was from East LA and he had been fighting his way up from the bottom all his life. His strength in his relations with the Koreans is that he is one of the few who bothered to learn the language, to learn about the culture and to understand the desperate circumstances that force people into certain ways of life.

Martin Limón takes us to a Korea that is fascinating, exciting and complex. He uses a bit of the history of the people he writes about to make us appreciate a very different culture that has suffered for the last centuries.

Peter May writes an excellent China series featuring an American pathologist who gets involved in unusual murders. The Fou4th Sacrifice is the second of the series.

In Beijing, one does not have to look far to find a contradiction or a contrast. There is one on every corner. The nearest street vendor might well be a learned ex-university professor who has been transformed by the cultural revolution into a producer of wonderful jian bing, a breakfast pancake, as well as riddles for Li Yan, a senior detective with the Beijing Municipal Police as he rides his bike to work.

"If a man walks in a straight line without turning his head, how can he continue to see everything he has walked past? There are no mirrors involved." asks Mei Yuan.

Today Li Yan has been called to what appears to be a ritual killing. A man had been beheaded, as he knelt with his hands tied behind his back with a silk cord. He has a placard around his neck with an apparent nickname on it, scored through by a single line and the number three. He is the fourth victim found in these circumstances.

The main difference is that this man is an expat American. He has returned to China after many years of living and working in the United States at a prestigious university and has taken a lowly job at the US embassy, going through visas. Another part of the mystery is that he is found at an apartment of his own, not the one given to him by the embassy.

US Embassy, Beijing
The American Embassy has requested that Dr. Margaret Campbell assist in the autopsy of the sacrificial victim. The Chinese are not especially happy about this, but they accept with good grace because Margaret Campbell has helped them before. They know that she sees things with a different and perceptive eye, which gives them a distinct edge in solving the crime. Li Yan, on the other hand is perturbed because he has had feeling for Margaret that developed during a previous case and had been warned that he must avoid any kind of a relationship with her.

Margaret does the postmortem on this last murder victim and does indeed open new avenues of investigation. She also begins to pursue a new relationship with an American archeologist working in China who is intent on soothing the feeling Li Yan has trampled. The American Embassy is interested in assisting in the investigation and wrangles Margaret onto the investigating team as well.

Another stress is placed on Li as his sister abandons her daughter and leaves her with him as she goes off to a secret location to have a forbidden second child, a boy. Li loves the little girl and is grateful that she does not suffer from a new Chinese syndrome known as "the little emperor"––quite commonly seen nowadays as the one child allotted to Chinese families is quite doted upon and very spoiled. These children are acting like––oh no!!––Western children. But at the same time, they are also growing up without cousins, aunts, uncles or extended families. The young men are increasing in preponderance, as girls are not wanted because they are seen as not being there to help in the parents' old age.

The answer to the street vendor's riddle is that the man is walking backwards. Just as to solve this crime, the investigators have to look to the past for clues to solve a murder that is based very much in the present.

Elizabeth Peters has a series involving another expat American. While it doesn’t capture the imagination like the Amelia Peabody series does, it is a lot of fun.

In Street of the Five Moons, corn on the cob and fireworks are theoretically not on the menu. Doctor Vicky Bliss is an art historian from the Midwest, specializing in medieval art and working at the National Museum in Munich. She is tall and eye-catching, so she has had to fight an uphill battle to have herself considered a brain rather than a beauty.

As the book opens, a dead man has been found on the streets of Munich, with a rare jewel sewn into his clothing. It appears to be an artistic masterpiece called the Charlemagne Talisman, one of the treasures of the museum. Except it really isn't. It is a near-perfect copy.

The important questions are, who made the copy and where did it come from? The next questions are, how was someone able to copy the piece so very perfectly and what was the purpose for it? Was someone planning to steal the museum's treasure and replace it with the copy?

These are the questions that appeal to the spy persona in Schmidt, Vicky's boss, and to Vicky herself. Schmidt convinces Vicky to take on the task of tracing the copy and finding out who made it––and what that person is up to. The beginning of the trail takes Vicky to Rome, to the Street of the Five Moons. It is here that she meets John Smythe, a mysterious man, and the fireworks begin.

Wherever you live may there be fireworks in your future!

Note: Versions of these reviews may appear on Amazon, Goodreads and other reviewing sites under my user names there.

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