In every city with a major military presence, a district can be found which serves the libidinal cravings of the personnel stationed there. The closer the proximity to the enemy, the broader the range of services offered. In Itaewon, the pleasure quarter of Seoul, Korea, arrangements can be made to satisfy the most jaded and unusual of tastes for the price of a package of American cigarettes or a bottle of Scotch. Still, staggering quantities of dollars and "won" are exchanged for products and services of a decidedly x-rated nature. The authorities, both local and military, tend to look the other way, as long as things don't get too out of hand. It is the job of CID officers George Sueno and Ernie Bascom to make sure that things don't get too out of hand. They carry a badge. (Okay, two badges . . . ) Buddha's Money is the third outing for Martin Limon's rough and tumble anti-heroes. The first, Jade Lady Burning, involved the criminal antics of a high-ranking officer; the second, Slicky Boys, found Sueno and Bascom deeply involved with an underground organization of thieves. This time, somewhat older and marginally wiser, the two are in a race against time to find an ancient jade skull which purportedly is inscribed with a map to the lost riches of Kublai Khan. Normally, this sort of venture would be outside their purview, except that the daughter of a retired Army man has been kidnapped and held for a particular ransom the jade skull. The kidnappers believe that the girl's father, now a quasi-legitimate dealer in Asian antiquities, is the go-between in a deal to smuggle the skull out of the country, and give him a deadline after which his daughter will be killed. The only problem is he doesn't have the skull. He turns to Sueno and Bascom in desperation.

The heroes are well-drawn, multi-dimensional characters. Sueno, the narrator, is an East LA orphan, for whom the Army is the only parent he has ever known, while Bascom, the contrapuntal brawling palooka, is happiest when he has a beer in one hand and a woman (or women!) in the other. This time, however, the major female attraction, the sensuous Lady Ahn, seems to be interested in Sueno . . . or is she? After all, she wants the jade skull as well. So, for that matter, does the nefarious Mongol monk, Ragyapa, who will stop at nothing in resurrecting his Evil Empire. Let's not forget Choi So-lan, the bald little Buddhist nun, who has every intention of setting herself afire in the town square if the skull is not returned to her sect. And just where does Herbalist So, the enigmatic head of the notorious slicky boys, fit in? Buddha's Money, of all the Bascom and Sueno novels, has the most far-fetched premise, with a latter-day Raiders of the Lost Ark feel. Still, the action is nonstop, the dialogue is crisp, and the mood is edgy and tense from beginning to end.

Reviewed by Bruce Tierney.

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