The Joy Brigade is Martin Limón’s ninth thriller featuring Sergeant George Sueño, and after reading it, I am pleased that I finally discovered the series. This time around (it’s1972), George is on a secret mission deep inside North Korea where the odds are heavily stacked against him. He knows that he will be lucky to survive the mission, but he has personal reasons for attempting it – a former lover of his, Doc Yong, possesses the ancient maps he has been assigned to get hold of, and George hopes that she will return to South Korea with him once contact is made.
George Sueño is a Military Police investigator with the U.S. Eighth Army in South Korea. Because his crime investigations often involve South Koreans, either as victims or as perpetrators, he has numerous Korean contacts, speaks the language quite well, and has a keen understanding of the culture. But he is not a spy, and he knows that his chances of surviving this assignment are ridiculously low. Getting himself north of the DMZ will turn out to be the least of his problems; shaking his handlers long enough to find Doc Young and her ancient maps and to make his escape will be the big challenge.
U.S. intelligence agencies know that something big is happening in the North. It appears that the People’s Army is preparing to invade South Korea, making the longtime rumors of the existence of a massive tunnel system linking the two countries more disturbing than ever. If the tunnels really exist, it is vital to the defense of South Korea that they are located, and Doc Yong’s ancient manuscript offers the best chance of finding them in time to stop the underground invaders in their tracks.
Despite some help from well-placed anti-government North Koreans, things soon get complicated for George. When he learns that his only chance of penetrating the upper echelons of the North Korean army is to win a foreigners-only martial arts tournament, it appears that his mission will end before he accomplishes anything other than getting himself tortured and killed.
Martin Limón offers a chilling look into North Korea that is very much reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. It is a world of blind obedience and general despair that citizens dare not challenge. A few people, however, do have the courage to work for change from within and they, along with one memorable villain, transform The Joy Brigade into a first-rate thriller. Limón’s description of the bleakness of everyday North Korean life is particularly striking because it is so easy to imagine that conditions are much the same there even forty years later.
The Joy Brigade is the best kind of thriller - one peopled with a host of memorable characters. George Sueño in his role as a vulnerable but determined spy is easy to root for, but my favorite character of them all is Rhee Mi-Sook, a beautiful leader of the North Korean secret police. This woman enjoys her work (in numerous ways, it turns out) – and she is good at it. I am looking forward to the tenth book in the series because what happens in the last paragraph of The Joy Brigade hints that Book Ten is going to be a doozy.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)