Vietnam Veterans of America
Books in Review, January/February 2018
Two Nam Vet Fictional Detectives Are Back with More Mayhem
“Don’t make it easy for him.”
That literary advice—given to a would-be detective novelist by an accomplished screenwriter a good many years ago—kept popping in my head as I devoured the new police procedural/thrillers by my two favorite crime novelists. That would be Michael Connelly, the creator of fictional former Vietnam War tunnel rat and L.A.P.D. homicide detective Harry Bosch, and James Lee Burke, whose hero is another Nam vet lawman: former New Orleans P.D. homicide detective turned New Iberia, Louisiana, sheriff’s deputy, Dave Robicheaux.
Both best-selling novelists follow that advice in their terrific new books: Connelly’s Two Kinds of Truth (Little, Brown, 406 pp. $29, hardcover; $14.99, E-Book; $26.98, audiobook), and Burke’s Robicheaux (Simon & Schuster, 449 pp., $27.99, hardcover; $14.99, E-Book).
Make that follow that advice times a hundred. These tense, plot-twisting, page-turning tales are filled with the flawed heroes’ life-changing mistakes, along with lots of murder and mayhem, a cast of venal villains, and more than a little mental anguish and painful soul-searching by both Harry and Dave.
Connelly and Burke follow the formula they have used in virtually all of their previous Bosch and Robicheaux novels. There have been twenty Bosch books, beginning with 1992’s Vietnam-War-heavy The Black Echo, and twenty-one Dave Robicheaux novels, starting with The Neon Rain in 1987.
The formula: Heinous crimes are committed. It falls on Harry and Dave to solve them (Harry’s a consultant on unsolved homicides with a small L.A.-area police department). They are dedicated to ascertaining the truth and avenging innocent victims. They run into bad cops and sociopathic bad guys. They stretch the law to its max (and sometimes beyond) in pursuit of evil doers. They are threatened. Their families are threatened. They all but lose their law enforcement jobs.
They stick to their principles, although they are severely tested at times. They use their brains, experience, and physical courage to solve the crime. There is resolution of sorts, but things don’t get wrapped up neatly in the end.
Following formulas can result in uninspired, by-the-book writing. Not with these guys. In all of their books Burke and Connelly make everything seem fresh. The characters seem real (if over the top), the landscapes (whether the hills of L.A. or the bayous of Louisiana) vividly drawn. The multi-layered plots are cleverly constructed; there are surprises galore.
While neither book is a “Vietnam War novel,” both are informed significantly by the detectives’ service in America’s most controversial war.
Two Kinds of Truth has only about a half-dozen references to Harry Bosch’s service in Vietnam and his rocky homecoming. These brief flashbacks are minor stops along the not-easy road Connelly has created for Harry. He volunteers to spearhead the investigation of a murderous band of criminals running a huge prescription drug scam, and at the same time has to defend himself from serious accusations of wrongdoing on an old homicide case. It takes all of his slightly waning powers to overcome and prevail in both.
Burke’s novel contains significantly more Vietnam War-related references involving Dave and his good buddy Clete Boyer, both of whom never have completely gotten over their tours—or their dysfunctional childhoods. Dave and Clete have flashbacks and nightmares. Burke deals with this aspect of their lives with brilliantly evocative writing and without resorting to stereotypes, not an easy task.
Here’s one example. Burke paints a picture of Clete’s mental state after visiting a hospitalized female friend who had been badly beaten up, probably because of carelessness on his part. After Clete leaves her room, Burke writes:
“An old Technicolor video, one that held interest for fewer and fewer people these days, had begun replaying itself on a screen inside his head. The slick hung in the air above the ville, its rotary blades throbbing. He heard the treads of the zippo track clanking out of the rice paddy and saw an orange flame arch out of its cannon and smelled a stench like burning kerosene and animal hair. People were running, the hooches bursting alight, the ammunition cached under them popping like strings of Chinese firecrackers.”
And this: Dave giving advice to an informant who is freaking out because he believes he’s about to be killed by the bad guys.
“The first time I went down a night trail, I couldn’t stop my teeth from clicking,” Dave says. “A kid on point hit a trip wire and was screaming in the dark. We had to go after him. There were toe poppers all over the place. I didn’t think I could make myself walk through them. Then an old-time line sergeant whispered something to me I never forgot: ‘Don’t think about it before you do it, Loot, and don’t think about it after it’s over.’”
Dave heeded the first part of that advice, but his nature would not allow him to not think about it in the days and years that followed. He is a complicated character at the center of a disturbing but compelling novel.
If you ever wondered how and why American men deserted the military or avoided the draft by running off to Sweden during the Vietnam War, you could do worse than read Matthew Sweet’s Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Themselves (Holt, 384 pp., p 28). In this mostly engaging book, Sweet, a British journalist and author, tries to make sense of an uncommonly chaotic story: the thousand or so American military deserters, draft dodgers, and other Vietnam War avoiders who went into self-imposed exile in neutral Sweden during the conflict, along with Operation CHAOS, the CIA operation set up to spy on them.
In Sweet’s telling, some of the exiles seem to be upright, idealistic men. But many were mentally unbalanced and others were criminals and drug addicts. Sweet tries to unravel their stories, but admits that while some of the dozens of former exiles he interviewed “are telling the truth,” others are out-and-out liars.
He writes compellingly in the first half of the book. Injecting himself in the narrative, Sweet tells how he diligently tracked down and interviewed many of subjects and evocatively sketches their life stories and his quests to uncover them.
But the book goes off track in the second half in which Sweet offers up mind-numbing details about the disturbed and disturbing post-Vietnam War life of what he aptly terms the “apocalyptic” criminal cult that several of the deserters joined. It was (and continues to be) led by Lyndon LaRouche, a mentally disturbed conspiracy theorist Sweet calls “the longest-running gag in U.S. fringe politics.”
The LaRouche narrative mars an otherwise credible look at a little-examined aspect of the American war in Vietnam.
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