Can THE JOY BRIGADE really be the ninth installment in Martin Limon’s George Sueno series? Limon and Sueno hold a special place for me as a reader of espionage fiction. The series, set primarily in South Korea, stars Sueno, an active duty military policeman. I suppose the books are classified as historical fiction, given that they take place in the middle third of so of the 20th century (though if I am old enough to remember it, how can it be history?). But the charm (if that’s the right word) of this series is due to Limon’s knowledgeable and light touch on his situations and characters, which provide a realistic viewpoint for the reader without ever losing track of the overall story.
"Limon’s use of an exotic setting and a somewhat unusual protagonist keep the Sueno series interesting from book to book, while his method of throwing change-ups in plot and motivation keep things fresh."
THE JOY BRIGADE begins in 1972, with Sueno entering North Korea on a dangerous and deadly undercover mission in which the lines between the professional and personal have become blurred. The professional is an extremely risky undercover operation. Kim Il-Sung, the ruler of North Korea, has vowed to reunite North and South Korea before he steps down from his position and hands the reins of power over to his son. There is only one way in which he will be able to do this, and that is to cross the de-militarized zone (DMZ) and overrun the South Korean government, which is allied with the United States. Sueno is tasked with making a clandestine entrance into North Korea and stealing a map that documents a series of underground tunnels running from north to south underneath the DMZ, which almost certainly will be the route by which Il-Sung’s army invades South Korea. In order to obtain the map, Sueno must infiltrate the Communist inner sanctum using a false identity.
Does this sound difficult? It is, and Sueno isn’t entirely confident that his abilities are up to the task. It has to be noted that it is here that Limon’s understated prose really shines. Sueno is clearly frightened --- there is no other word for it --- by the magnitude of his mission, yet proceeds without hesitation, because it is his duty. At least, that is part of his reason for proceeding. It is here that the personal element enters into Sueno’s undercover mission. The keeper of the map is none other than Doc Yong, Sueno’s former lover who was forced the previous year to flee South Korea. But this is not the only thing that has changed in Doc Yong’s situation. Sueno learns that she now has a son.
Before Sueno and Doc Yong can reunite, let alone be reconciled, however, everything falls apart. Whoever said that no plan of battle survives the initial engagement certainly knew what they were talking about, given that Sueno is captured before he can effectuate his plan to get hold of the map. He is not entirely alone. His contact and guide through North Korea is a man named Hero Kang, who may or may not be Sueno’s salvation. There is also an enigmatic group of women known as the Joy Brigade. Will they be able or willing to help Sueno? Or will the series end here, with Sueno imprisoned and his worst fears realized?
Limon’s use of an exotic setting and a somewhat unusual protagonist keep the Sueno series interesting from book to book, while his method of throwing change-ups in plot and motivation keep things fresh. Fans of military and espionage fiction who like their reading occasionally spiced with mystery should enjoy this series and, at the very least, try a volume or two, beginning with THE JOY BRIGADE.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 5, 2012