The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
November/December 2005
BOOKS IN REVIEW
 
 

James Lee Burke Sets His Cajun Cop Free
in Crusader's Cross
 

REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON

There’s a moment in all of James Lee Burke’s terrific Dave Robicheaux detective novels in which our flawed hero—the on-again, off-again Iberia Parish, Louisiana, sheriff’s deputy—undergoes an awakening. In a flash, Dave overcomes extreme adversity (most often of his own making), sees things clearly, and moves on to solve a complex crime. That moment comes about two-thirds through Burke’s thirteenth Robicheaux, Crusader’s Cross (Simon & Schuster, 325 pp., $25.95), another compelling thriller filled with evocative writing and memorable characters.

The epiphany strikes when Dave, a former Army LT with a persistent case of PTSD, falls off the wagon, assaults a bad guy, and is hauled into a local jail. “I felt like a man who had set fire to his own home in order to warm up an unappetizing dinner,” Dave says just before he flashes back to the incident that ended his Vietnam War tour. While leading his men through double-canopy jungle, a booby trap cut a PFC in half and “laced my side and thigh with shrapnel that looked like twisted steel fingers,” Dave remembers. “I felt myself float toward the canopy, then crash to the earth.”

His men, he thinks, could have left him to die, since he had led them down the booby-trapped trail. “But that was not their way,” Dave says. The men pulled him out of the jungle. “They carried me all night, with no sleep, their arms straining against one hundred eighty pounds of dead weight, while they humped their own weapons and packs and radios and sweltered inside their flak vests, their exposed skin a feast for mosquitoes that boiled out of the elephant grass.” That’s when, Dave says, “I felt my long-held fear of death finally use itself up and lift from my soul the way ash floats off a dead fire.”

That was the light-bulb moment for Dave, and it’s significant that it has to do with his tour of duty in Vietnam, a defining period in his eventful life. “The dice had rolled out of the cup,” he says, “and if the numerical sum on them was snake-eyes or boxcars, the matter was out of my control, and that simple conclusion about my lifespan on earth set me free.”

Dave is then set free by Burke to solve a vexing series of murders with the help of his former New Orleans Police detective buddy (and Nam vet) Clete Purcell. The case involves—as it usually does for Dave—a cast of colorful underworld figures, strange beautiful women, and murderous sociopaths. The action is set amid the bayous of southern Louisiana and the mean streets of New Orleans.

James Lee Burke has been spinning out Dave Robicheaux detective thrillers since 1987’s The Neon Rain. Few have been as satisfying as Crusader’s Cross, a novel that holds up until the last pages when the thrills end, the bad guys are unmasked, and Dave lives on to fight evil (and his own demons) another day. You can’t ask for more than that.

BLOODY McCARTHY

A couple of years ago, a friend—who happens to be a Vietnam veteran—strongly recommended a book, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which was published in 1985. This was not just a recommendation, mind you; the guy said it was the best book he’d ever read. I’d never read McCarthy but knew his reputation as a hard-hitting, award-winning literary novelist who set his tales in the Wild West. His All the Pretty Horses won both the National Book Critics Circle and National Book Awards in 1992.

I found Blood Meridian lyrically written, but too dark and too violent for my taste. Set along the Texas-Mexico border in the 1840s, the book chronicles the blood-soaked misadventures of a 14-year-old (called The Kid) who joins an unimaginably crude, cruel band of thugs who rampage through the Southwest, killing Apaches and turning their scalps in for bounty money from the Mexican government.

McCarthy (born Charles McCarthy in Rhode Island in 1933) has published only one novel, Cities of the Plain, since 1998 when I read Blood, but I had no interest in it. I did, however, have a strong interest in his latest book, No Country for Old Men (Knopf, 309 pp., $24.95). That’s because I’d read in a pre-publication review that the story involved two Vietnam veterans.

The world that McCarthy creates in this depressing, violent story is peopled with individuals who live in a reality filled with hit men, broad-daylight gun fights, and multimillion-dollar drug deals. The Vietnam veterans in the tale are Wells, a professional hit man who served with the Special Forces, and Moss, a good ole Texas boy who did three tours (1966-68) in Nam with the “12th Infantry Battalion,” whatever that is supposed to be. Why is it that hard-guy fictional Vietnam veterans always seem to have served multiple tours and were either Green Berets, SEALs, Rangers, or other special forces types?

Like a character in a Hitchcock movie, Moss gets in way over his head while minding his own business; in this case, when he’s out in the middle of nowhere antelope hunting along the Rio Grande. He winds up going on the lam with more than two million in unmarked bills—and with two hit people on his and his wife’s trail. The professional murderers are Wells and a grim, iron-muscled psycho killer who has physical powers and mental abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Many folks get terrorized, tortured, and killed in McCarthy’s grim tale.

FICTION IN BRIEF

The star of Joseph Heywood’s Running Dark (Lyons Press, 304 pp., $19.95) is Grady Service, a Marine Vietnam veteran working as a state conservation officer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in 1975. Service finds too much that reminds him of the war as he gets involved hip deep in a violent revolt by local fishermen who flaunt the state’s fishing and other laws. This is the fourth in Heywood’s Woods Cop mystery series.

Eugene Sullivan’s The Majority Rules (Forge, 398 pp., $24.95) is a page-turning legal thriller set in Washington involving an up-and-coming lawyer and a big-time federal judge. Sullivan is a retired federal judge, USMA graduate, and Vietnam veteran who served as an Airborne Ranger. Brit writer Colin Cotterrill’s fast-paced The Coroner’s Lunch (Soho, 257 pp., $24) is a mystery novel set in 1975 in Pathet-Lao-run Laos. It centers around the quest of a 72-year-old state coroner to solve the murders of three Vietnamese men.

John J. Nance’s thriller, Saving Cascadia (Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $25), involves a government seismologist and his uphill battle to stave off a giant earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. Nance, the author of 17 books, served as a U.S. Air Force pilot in the Vietnam War and in Operation Desert Storm. For more info, go to www.johnjnance.com VVA member Tom Jones, who served in Vietnam in 1969-70, has incorporated his wartime experiences into the autobiographical novel Pride and Greed (PublishAmerica, 199 pp., $16.95, paper).

Doan Le first made her name in Vietnam as a film actress, scriptwriter, and director, and then as a painter. Doan Le also is one of Vietnam’s top fiction writers, the author of several acclaimed novels and short story collections. The Cemetery of a Chua Village and Other Stories (Curbstone, 192 pp., $14.95, paper) is the first collection of her work to appear in English. Translated by Rosemary Nguyen with additional translations by Duong Tuong and Wayne Karlin, these stories are set in a rural village in contemporary Vietnam.

MEMOIRS

Retired Air Force pilot John T. Halliday took part in the “secret” war in Laos soon after he reported for duty with the 606th Special Operations Squadron at a USAF base in Thailand in 1970. Flying Through Midnight: A Pilot’s Dramatic Story of His Secret Missions Over Laos During the Vietnam War (Scribner, 432 pp., $27.50) is Halliday’s creatively written account of his part in the Vietnam War. In it, Halliday makes liberal use of reconstructed quotes, ellipses, and techno-pilot speak—so much so that the book often reads more like a novel than a memoir.

The heart of the book is Halliday’s spirited recreation of an astounding crash landing he made at midnight on an unlit airstrip in mountainous territory in Laos and how Halliday and his crew of eight extricated themselves from a tense situation deep behind enemy lines. Those actions earned him an Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross. Among other things, Halliday and crew unexpectedly ran into Vang Pao (whom the author refers to as “Bang-Pow”), the general who commanded Hmong troops against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao.

Jon Hovde, who volunteered for the draft, arrived in Vietnam in October 1967 and was assigned to Company A, 4/23rd Mechanized of the Army’s 25th Infantry Division based in Cu Chi. On January 8, 1968, in the Iron Triangle’s Ho Bo Woods, Hovde was severely wounded when the APC he was driving hit an anti-tank mine. Or, as the Western Union telegram to his parents two days later put it: “His vehicle hit a hostile mine resulting in traumatic amputation of his left leg above the knee, his left arm below the elbow and the ring finger of his right hand.” Hovde’s memoir, Left for Dead: A Second Life After Vietnam (University of Minnesota, 192 pp., $22.95), is a well-crafted look at his brief Vietnam War tour and an uplifting recounting of his difficult, but successful, readjustment to life back home.

Retired USAF Lieutenant Col. Ed Cobleigh flew 375 F-4 Phantom sorties—including more than a thousand hours of combat time—out of Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base during two Vietnam War tours with the 433rd Tactical Fighter Wing (“Satan’s Angels”) and the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (the “Wolfpack”). Cobleigh offers what he describes as a “series of brief accounts of some of the most significant aerial combat” in which he took part in his well-written memoir, War for the Hell of It: A Fighter Pilot’s View of the Vietnam War (Berkeley, 288 pp., $15, paper).

Retired USAF Col. Allan T. Stein began his military service in World War II. Near the end, he did a 1966-67 tour in Vietnam as operations officer for the 360th Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron based at Tan Son Nhut. Stein gives a by-the-numbers account of his military career in Into the Wild Blue Yonder: My Life in the Air Force (Texas A&M University, 200 pp., $29.95). It includes his strong opinions about the American press corps in the war. Much of the reporting, Stein says, “was self-serving [by] reporters trying to make a name for themselves or bucking for promotion.”

REFERENCE DESK

Three new Jane’s high-quality paperback Recognition Guides from Collins Reference, the state-of-the-art comprehensive illustrated reference works crammed with data, include info on Vietnam War military hardware. They are the fourth edition of Jane’s Aircraft Recognition Guide (528 pp., $24.95) by Gunter Endres and Michael J. Gething; Jane’s Vintage Aircraft Recognition Guide (493 pp., $24.95) by Tony Holms; and the fourth edition of Jane’s Guns Recognition Guide (464 pp., $24.95) by Ian Hogg and Terry J. Gander.

Schiffer Military History has three new lavishly produced and highly detailed titles dealing with Vietnam War military hardware: LOACH!: The Story of the H-6/Model 500 Helicopter by Wayne Mutza (144 pp., $29.95, paper); 50 Years of the U-2: The Complete Illustrated History of the “Dragon Lady” by Chris Pocock (440 pp., $69.95); and USAF F-4 and F-105 MiG Killers of the Vietnam War by Donald J. McCarthy, Jr. (136 pp., $59.95). McCarthy served a 1966-67 tour with the USAF 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam.

Robert Cowley, the founding editor of Military History Quarterly, has put together The Cold War: A Military History (Random House, 478 pp., $27.95), a worthy collection of two dozen essays. That includes eight dealing with the Vietnam War by Douglas Porch, Williamson Murray (on Dien Bien Phu), Laura Palmer (on Gen. Westmoreland), James Warren (on Khe Sanh), Ronald Spector (on Kham Duc), Marilyn Elkins (on MIAs), Geoffrey Norman, and Stephen Ambrose (on the 1972 Christmas bombing).

Brit military writer Will Fowler’s The Special Forces Guide to Escape and Evasion (St. Martin’s, 192 pp., $24.95) is an illustrated, how-to for those of us who get stuck behind enemy lines without a plan for getting home alive. Fowler includes examples of helicopter extraction techniques used in the Vietnam War, as well as details of the November 1970 Son Tay prison raid in Vietnam—the one that didn’t find any POWs.

   

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