THE COLD DISH: A LONGMIRE MYSTERY by Craig Johnson

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The last week or so my wife and I have been binging on the Netflix program, Longmire.  We have found it almost addictive as each program leaves the viewer hanging anticipating the next episode.  The characters are fascinating as is the Wyoming landscape that is presented.  This being the case I thought it would be interesting to see where the mindset for the program derived.  It seems the series was the brainchild of the novelist Craig Johnson whose first effort was entitled THE COLD DISH: A LONGMIRE MYSTERY, part of a fifteen book compendium.  Johnson has what I would characterize as a soft sarcastic approach to dialogue and writing in general.  He sprinkles in the beauty of Wyoming and the intricate relationship between life on an Indian reservation and the town of Durant.  The main character is Sheriff Walter Longmire, a cultured man educated at USC and an individual who served in Vietnam.  Longmire became a widow three years before the story begins when his wife Martha suffering from cancer was murdered while undergoing chemotherapy in Denver.  Longmire comes across as a disheveled man living in a partially completed log cabin on the outskirts of Durant.  The people closest to him are his daughter Cady, a lawyer who lives in Philadelphia, and his childhood friend Henry Standing Bear who is Longmire’s link to the reservation and served with Special Forces in Vietnam.  A great deal of the socialization that takes place in the novel is centered in the Red Pony tavern which is owned by Henry and the local police station.

Johnson has created an eclectic group of characters as the plot unfolds.  His department consists of Deputy Victoria Moretti, a former Philadelphia cop who carries her own personal and professional baggage.  Ruby is the lady in charge of the office who runs a very tight ship and at times acts as Longmire’s conscience. Deputy Brian Connally, known as “Turk” has a very dysfunctional relationship with Longmire.  Jim Ferguson is the Head of Search and Rescue, and Lucien Connally is the former crusty old sheriff who lives in an assisted living complex who serves at times as Longmire’s alter ego.

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Johnson does a wonderful job integrating the native culture and everyday life of the Cheyenne Indian reservation to the reader.  The problems of the reservation range from the lack of education, drugs, alcoholism to the constant struggle for survival.  The Indian bureaucracy put in place by the US Department of the Interior often comes in conflict with Longmire and his office as the fight against federal control is ever present with the many rules and regulations that exist on the reservation which Longmire navigates like a minefield.  Longmire relies on Henry as his guide throughout the plot and is one of the strongest characters that Johnson creates.

The novel opens with Johnson bringing the reader up to date on all the major characters then launches into a scene at the Red Pony when Longmire informs Henry that Cody Pritchard has been found dead amidst a herd of sheep outside of Durant.  Pritchard was among a group of four teenagers who four years earlier had raped and sodomized an emotionally challenged Indian girl whose trial split the entire community, white and non-white.  When three of the four boys served less than two years, and the fourth received probation and 100 hours of community service, the animosity spilled over.  The death four years later brings a number of people to the conclusion that Pritchard, who was the least apologetic over what had been done was murdered in a revenge killing.  Later in the novel when another of the boys is killed, Longmire is confronted with a very dangerous case.

Longmire is a loner and still grieves over the death of his wife.  He has difficulties establishing and maintaining relationships with others, particularly women.  His friends pressure him to seek the companionship of someone, but his awkwardness and guilt over the death of his wife is a stumbling block as he has a habit for saying the wrong thing.  Despite these shortcomings Johnson introduces Vonnie Hayes and through their relationship we can see what a tortured individual Longmire has become.

The reader is taken through the wilds of Wyoming as Longmire and Henry seek the killer and it is a very suspenseful journey.  As the novel reaches its climax the reader will be stunned with the path that the author takes.  Johnson has created the basis for a very effective and entertaining series and the television program along with his novels are well worth the time to experience them.

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SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER by Bruce Henderson.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

During World War II there was a little known group of men who were trained at Camp Ritchie, Maryland.  Their extensive classwork and field training was designed to prepare them to interrogate German prisoners of war and gather intelligence to be used against Nazi forces.  What became known as the “Ritchie Boys” was formed in mid-1942 and was made up of 1985 German born Jews who had immigrated to the United States in response to Nazi persecution particularly after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933,  Kristallnacht in November, 1938, and the events of 1941.  Most of these German-Jewish boys arrived without parents and siblings and had to adapt to their new homeland on their own.  Part of the reason was due to the racist/anti-sematic attitude on the part of a number of important State Department officials like Breckenridge Long who as Assistant Secretary of State helped set American immigration policy.  The journey of the Ritchie Boys and their impact on the Second World War is aptly told by Bruce Henderson with compassion and insight in his latest book, SONS AND SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE JEWS WHO ESCAPED THE NAZIS AND RETURNED WITH THE ARMY TO FIGHT HITLER.  The story of the Ritchie Boys takes them through their wartime experiences in gathering important intelligence from German POWs, their participation in a number of important battles, including the Normandy invasion, Operation Market Basket, the Battle of the Bulge, liberation of extermination camps, and their efforts after the war to locate family members.

In the first part of the book Henderson focuses on the early plight and immigration of a number of men who would become Ritchie Boys.  They include Martin Selling, who was rounded up after Kristallnacht, separated from his family, imprisoned in Dachau and after his release made it to the United Kingdom due to the work of a Jewish relief agency that eventually provided a visa to enter the United States.  Gunter Stern, who would change his name to Guy grew up in a middle class family in Northern Germany and as the situation for Jews deteriorated in 1937 he was sent by himself to the United States to live with an uncle in St. Louis because the State Department refused to allow the rest of his family to immigrate.  Stephan Lewy was placed in an orphanage after his mother died and the economic fortunes of his father collapsed.  After his father was released from a concentration camp and they experienced Kristallnacht he left Germany for Paris leaving his father and step mother behind.  Werner Angress was not a very good student and he was sent to an agricultural farm in Poland where he found success.  Once things deteriorated in Berlin his father developed a successful plan for the entire family to escape and go to Amsterdam.  In 1939 Angress escaped from Holland and left for America.  Lastly, Victor Brombert, another teenage boy was smuggled out of Germany in 1933 and moved to Paris, however, during the Vichy regime he left France to experience a harrowing voyage to New York and safety in 1941.

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(Guy Stern)

All of the boys experienced the emergence of Hitler, their removal from schools, harassment by Hitler Youth, and the collapse of their families as parents were arrested, businesses confiscated, and the eventual separation.  All witnessed and were affected by the 1935 Nuremberg “Blood” Laws, Kristallnacht, and the difficulty of emigrating in part because the Nazis seized their assets and only allowed them to take a pittance of their wealth out of the country.  Henderson further explores the difficulties as they had to navigate the exclusionary immigration laws of the United States and their enforcement by elements in the State Department.  Jews were required to provide affidavits from American citizens that they would take care of their relatives financially, along with other documentation that took a great deal of time to obtain.  The work of David Wyman provides an inside look into the “old boys club” of the State Department and their arcane views when it came to race and Jews.  Henderson describes the heroic efforts of the families as they realized that only one family member would be allowed to leave and in most cases it was the eldest son with the hope they could reunite later.

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(American soldier and survivors of the Wobbelin concentration camp)

The boys that are the center of the story would become naturalized American citizens before they were sent overseas to fight the Nazis.  Henderson describes their training and dispatch to England to participate in the Normandy landing.  Since native Germans would have knowledge of Nazi/German culture and colloquial language the Ritchie Boys were in high demand to interrogate POWs.  The individual stories Henderson presents reflects the importance of the Ritchie Boys to the allied war effort.  Particularly interesting is Werner Angress who was attached to the 82nd Airborne and with little training parachuted behind German lines.  His later intelligence gathering leading up to and during the Battle of the Bulge was very important.  Another insightful segment deals with Victor Brombert’s participation in the 28th Infantry Division as he experienced combat in Belgium and Northern France and predicted the Battle of the Bulge which was ignored by hire ups.  Perhaps one of the most ingenious of the Ritchie Boys was Guy Stern who after Normandy was made Head of Survey and his reports were distributed to all allied commanders including General Eisenhower.  Along with another Ritchie Boy named Manfred Ehrlich, who changed his name to Fred Howard, he developed a number of unusual schemes in order to extract information from POWs.

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(Werner Angress, his mother and two brothers after the war)

Henderson tells a number of wonderful stories including the visit of Marlene Dietrich as part of the USO, the capture of Hauptmann Kurt Bruns who ordered the death of two captured Ritchie Boys, how the Ritchie Boys had to overcome the skepticism of some officers who accused them of being German spies, and at times the guilt they felt when they had to use unorthodox methods to extract information from POWs.  Perhaps the most poignant part of the book is when the Ritchie Boys confronted the Holocaust when they witnessed the concentration camps.  Stephan Lewy arrived at Buchenwald with the Sixth Armored Division, Guy Stern arrived at Buchenwald three days after its liberation, Werner Angress witnessed the Wobbelin concentration camp, and when Manny Steinfeld arrived there he could not escape the possibility that his sister and mother were murdered there.

Overall, Henderson tells a remarkable story.  It is told clearly integrating numerous interviews with the Ritchie Boys and accompanying research.  My main criticism involves the method of sourcing which is very ineffective and difficult to attribute information.  As a historian I would love to have been able to match materials to citations so I might have pursued certain aspects of the book further.  However, the topic is fascinating and Henderson has done these men a great service by telling their story.

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(The burning of a Jewish synagogue during Kristallnacht)

HOUSE OF SPIES by Daniel Silva

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Daniel Silva seems to reward his readers with a new Gabriel Allon tale each summer.  This July it is no exception with the appearance of HOUSE OF SPIES, a story that is very contemporary as Silva seems to have a knack for constructing a plot, unbeknownst to him that has a striking resemblance to what is occurring on the streets of England and Europe.  Silva’s new novel moves seamlessly from THE BLACK WIDOW to his latest iteration of the Allon character.  Last summer when THE BLACK WIDOW was published Allon was chasing an ISIS inspired master terrorist named, Saladin and it concluded with the fear that after his successful attack in Washington, D.C. he would soon strike again.  These fears came to fruition at the outset of the novel as Julian Isherwood, a London art dealer with strong ties to Allon and Israeli intelligence becomes a hero during a Saladin operation in West London.  Isherwood is able to save a number of lives, but the result of the attack on three separate sites is close to 1000 deaths and the most devastating London has suffered since the Nazi bombing during World War II.

A number of characters from THE BLACK WIDOW reappear in the HOUSE OF SPIES.  Christopher Kelly, a former M16 operative who returns to the British spy agency after an absence of twenty five years has a major role.  Graham Seymour, the head of MI6, Paul Rousseau head of France’s elite Alpha Unit, Dr. Natalie Mizrahi, a physician turned Israeli agent who had saved Saladin’s life, Adrian Carter, the Chief of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, and numerous Israeli agents, and of course Ari Shamron, Allon’s mentor all appear.  Silva’s story is prescient as Saladin’s attack in West London follows on the heels of the real attack in London on the bridge across the Thames and the Borough Market in early June.

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In the current situation Allon finds himself as Chief of Israeli Intelligence having to take somewhat of a background role as the complex operation that has been prepared unfolds.  There are many moving parts and characters that Israeli agents and Kelly carry out with Allon offering instructions through ear pieces from afar.  The question is can Allon allow “younger” operatives to play the central role in carrying out the OP, which is totally against his nature. The novel itself is not as intense and gripping as previous episodes.  It seems to move at a more leisurely pace missing much of the drama that Silva’s readers have grown accustomed to.  Silva is still right on when it comes to the current world situation and does not shrink from commentary concerning politics, European-American relations, European society, and cooperation among allies.  There are numerous references to the questionable attitude put forth by the Trump administration, the problem of dealing with a “dirty bomb,” issues within the American intelligence community, the role of French society in creating jihadists, and a number of other pertinent problems.

If there is a lesson to be learned from Silva’s work is that allies need to work together; share intelligence and not create road blocks against each other, avoid demeaning the intelligence community, never publicly criticize one’s allies, and pursue a policy that can only be described as “chaotic,” as it is not conducive to maintaining the security of people in the fight against terrorism.  Perhaps certain individuals should read some of Silva’s novels as it may be easier to digest than intelligence briefings and other national security papers that are presented daily.  Silva’s latest work is a good read, but not one of his best.  But in true Daniel Silva style he leaves enough threads at the end of the book dealing with Iran, Syria, and ISIS that the next Allon caper must already be outlined in his mind.

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MIDNIGHT AT THE BRIGHT IDEAS BOOKSTORE by Mathew Sullivan

THE EXILE: THE STUNNING INSIDE STORY OF OSAMA BIN LADEN AND AL QAEDA IN FLIGHT by Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy

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(Bin Laden family compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan)

After perpetrating the horror of 9/11 al-Qaeda leadership and its followers scattered with the expectation that they had provoked what would be a massive military response.  The path Osama Bin Laden and his family, al-Qaeda officials, and others took to escape the lethal American bombardment has been open to conjecture by historians and journalists for sixteen years.  The publication of THE EXILE: THE STUNNING INSIDE STORY OF OSAMA BIN LADEN AND AL QAEDA IN FLIGHT by Cathy Scott- Clark and Adrian Levy goes a long way in filling the gaps in what happened to Bin Laden and his followers, concluding in 2017.  The authors employ their investigative journalistic prowess to write the most complete account of the years the United States hunted for Bin Laden, al-Qaeda leadership, and operatives until their final capture or death.  What sets their work apart is that they rely on the stories of al-Qaeda leaders, gunmen, planners, spiritual guides, fighters, and family members told to them through countless interviews.  We witness the failure of the Bush administration to take out Bin Laden as they immediately pivoted to the invasion of Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State, the truth of what occurred in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011, and the individual stories of countless al-Qaeda and Taliban members as they sought to survive.

The narrative begins with Osama Bin Laden listening to a radio inside a cave north of Khost to what he hoped would be news of a successful attack on the World Trade Center.  What is interesting from the outside is that the authors report that the al-Qaeda Shura was actually divided as to the pursuit of the “plane operation” strategy.  Mahfouz Ibn El Waleed who Bin Laden relied upon to create religious justifications for his actions led the faction that opposed the attack.  El Waleed was also known as the “Mauritanian” served as Bin Laden’s go between with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and arranging for Bin Laden’s family to seek refuge in Iran.  The authors also focus in on Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti cleric who prepared Bin Laden’s video reaction to the World Trade Center success and also accompanied the Bin Laden family to Iran.  Further, al-Qaeda kept the Taliban leadership in the dark over the 9/11 plan.

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(Osama Bin Laden)

The authors present exacting detail in all aspects of the narrative.  They even discuss Bin Laden family turmoil involving Osama’s four wives, two of which were extremely religious and committed to their husband’s policy of jihad.  The authors discuss Bin Laden’s treatment of his wives and children and he comes across as an insular figure who marries off his daughters to mujahedeen, and educates his children to carry out his jihad.  When certain sons and daughters do not measure up he has no problem dispatching them to other family members or acolytes.  The family’s plight is based on interviews and we see their terror when exposed to American drones and bombing.  The role of Iran in this process is very interesting in that Teheran is willing to provide sanctuary to many family members.  At the outset Iran, long disassociated from the United States offers intelligence and other assistance to Washington.  However, within the Iranian government there was a split between a reformist faction led by President Mohammad Khatami and Quds Force Leader Qassem Suleimani over whether to turn over Bin Laden family members to the United States.  However, President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech put an end to any improvement in Iranian-American relations and led to Suleimani’s dominance over policy.  Sadly, the Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq led to the lost opportunity of possibly improving relations with Iran as both wanted to destroy al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The authors review the role of the ISI, Pakistan’s version of the CIA that has been told in a number of places.  They reach the same conclusions as previous authors and officials that the Pakistani government was not to be trusted and were in bed with the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other jihadi elements.  Under President Pervez Musharraf and those that succeeded he in office the Islamabad strategy was to milk the United States for as much military and domestic aid as possible, feigning support, which at times did include military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  The lack of Pakistani government control in the border areas of Waziristan allowed al-Qaeda, Taliban and other jihadi groups a sanctuary from American attack.  CIA frustration with ISI and Pakistani government duplicity dominate the narrative.

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The authors detail Bin Laden’s escape from the Tora Bora caves north of Khost.  Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his men were also present in the area and along with al-Qaeda militants the authors describe how unnerved they were by the massive US bombing and the hundreds of people that were killed.  It appeared to CIA Station Chief Robert Grenier in Islamabad that al-Qaeda and Bin Laden would withdraw into Waziristan, Pakistan’s “no man’s land” and he had no faith that the Pakistani promise to interdict them would take place.  In fact the Mumbai attack in India took place at the same time, resulting in Pakistani troops moving to its border with India, a change that seems almost too coincidental.  Grenier asked general Tommy Franks for troops to keep al-Qaeda and Bin Laden boxed in, but he refused, almost guaranteeing their escape.  Franks’ argument was that he did not want to commit troops and make the same error as the Soviet Union.  This may have played a role in his thinking, but Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld had already turned to regime change in Iraq.

The authors dig into the evolution of US interrogation techniques paying special attention to Dr. James Mitchell, a clinical psychologist who had no practical experience with this type of interrogation, i.e., waterboarding, walling, diapers, insects, etc. a policy approved by Attorney General John Ashcroft in July, 2002.  The narrative presented is based on the diary prepared by Abu Zubayda, a Saudi born Palestinian logistical expert who sent recruits and funds to jihad training camps in Afghanistan from Peshawar.  This diary provides an amazing picture of “ghost detainees” in the CIA’s covert rendition program and was the first to undergo enhanced interrogation techniques.  Other sources include Justice Department documents, CIA tapes, and US Senate Reports.

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(Bin Laden’s fourth wife and their children)

The chronological approach chosen by the authors covers most aspects of the run up to the war in Iraq, the Sunni uprising led by Zarqawi until his death, events in Afghanistan, including the resurgence of the Taliban, the role of Iran, and US strategy to achieve its goals in the region.  Integrating the narrative with the plight of the Bin Laden family by concentrating on Osama’s journey that resulted in his five year residence in his compound in Abbottabad is extremely important in terms of the final capture.  The American raid is described in detail as is the role played by Bin Laden’s Pakistani allies.  Interestingly, according to the authors the Bin Laden family was about to move from the compound and travel to Peshawar.  At the time of his death Osama Bin Laden was buoyed by the developing Arab spring, the economic crisis in the United States, and the unrest in Pakistan.  His plan was to leave Abbottabad to “reinstate the rule of the Caliphate” in Peshawar.  However, differences with Ibrahim, aka Abu Ahmad al-Kuwaiti, assigned to be Osama’s constant companion delayed his departure, resulting in the successful American raid.

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(US detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba)

Perhaps THE EXILES most important contribution to the growing source material on 9/11 and after is how they took the myriad of interviews of their subjects and formulated a clear and incisive narrative that explains how Osama Bin Laden and his family were able to escape to Pakistan, resulting in their claustrophobic life in Abbottabad as the US continued its search for years.  The book fills an important gap in the historiography of its subject, and though at times is very rigid in its reporting, it a major contribution for academics and general readers alike.

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(The Bin Laden family compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan)

HUE` 1968: A TURNING POINT IN THE AMERICAN WAR IN VIETNAM by Mark Bowden

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(The evacuation of the wounded from the Battle of Hue` in February, 1968)

For those who enjoyed Mark Bowden’s works such as BLACK HAWK DOWN, GUESTS OF THE AYYATOLLAH, and KILLING PABLO, his new book HUE`, 1968 should be prove to be just as satisfying, if not more.  Bowden relies on the same assiduous research, exemplified by his interviews with all sides of the conflict; American Marines and decision makers, North Vietnamese soldiers and commanders, in addition to civilians caught in the conflict.  Bowden’s fluid writing style along with his in depth knowledge of what transpired in Hue` has created the preeminent account of the 1968 Tet offensive, concentrating on the seizure of the ancient city of Hue`, and the American/ARVN (South Vietnamese) retaking of the city that came at an extremely high cost in terms of casualties and treasure.

Bowden zeroes in on the major players in the war as well as the ground troops who were the main combatants and the civilians who were caught in the crosshairs of the battle.  Bowden correctly excoriates General William Westmoreland, the American commander in charge of the war.  Westmoreland became obsessed with kill ratios and/or body counts to measure American progress.  By the end of 1967 he grew very encouraged that the war was close to an end and instead of taking into account the facts on the ground and cracks in American intelligence he continued to see battles in terms of numbers rather than the ability to maintain control of territory, and who the Vietnamese civilians actually supported.  Westmoreland was convinced that an attack was in the offering, but that it would come at Khe Sanh, and was caught completely by surprise at the strength of the offensive and the fact that Hue` had fallen to the enemy.  At the outset he had shifted US forces around depleting certain areas, thus facilitating the success of Tet.  Westmoreland suffered from the same tunnel vision that most American commanders and politicians, in that they equated indigenous nationalism with communism throughout the Cold War, resulting in the war in Southeast Asia.

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(Don McCullin, a shell shocked Marine at the Battle of Hue`

Personal stories abound be it Che The Mung; an eighteen year old girl whose sister was killed and father imprisoned by the ARVN who became a member of the Viet Cong at age twelve.  Her role was to help prepare for a general uprising in Hue once the offensive began and lead soldiers into the city which she knew like the back of her hand.  We become familiar with a number of American commanders and lesser officers in addition to the “grunts.”  Their personal stories are told and many stick out like Lt. Andrew Westin who enlisted after being married eleven months and found that his efforts to avoid Vietnam were dashed when he was ordered to join the 7th Cavalry.  Bowden makes good use of the daily letters he sent to his wife Mimi back in Ypsilanti, MI and they afford the reader a clear vision of what it was like for American troops.  Richard “Lefty” Leflar, an eighteen year old who grew up outside Philadelphia who had difficulties staying out of the courts, joined the Marines and was dropped into the battle to retake Hue` in mid-February 1968.  We witness the carnage and the brutality of the battle to retake Hue` through Leflar’s perspective and it is not pretty.  Commanders like Colonel Dick Sweet and Lt. Col. “Big” Ernie Cheatham who helped command “on the ground” the US effort to retake Hue will find their stories told in depth, as are reporters like New York Times Saigon bureau chief Gene Roberts whose writings were the first to educate the American people with what was actually happening in Hue.  CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite visits the battlefield during the Tet Offensive and after learning the truth of what was occurring on the ground changes his view of the war – with the most trusted man in America reporting events President Johnson was shaken.

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(Hue` from the air)

Bowden has done a masterful job in recreating the North Vietnamese preparation and assault on Hue`.  The reader is provided an excellent assortment of maps to follow and understand troop movements.  His narrative is enhanced as he tells the story, in part, through the eyes of Nguyen Van Quang Ha and his team who lived in a hole with a thatched cover that made them invisible to US air assets.  As Hue` became the one place in South Vietnam that most directly contradicted Westmoreland’s assurances, President Lyndon B. Johnson began to question his commander’s conclusions.  Clark Clifford’s description in his memoir COUNSEL TO THE PRESIDENT aptly describes Westmoreland’s request for 206,000 more troops in February 1968 and Johnson’s reaction that led to his withdrawal from his presidential reelection campaign at the end of March.  As a result Westmoreland would finally be fired by the president.

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(General William Westmoreland)

Bowden recreates American preparations to retake Hue` very carefully.  His analysis is based on interviews with the participants from both sides.  The difficulty in retaking the city was captured by the phrase, “learning by trial and tragically bloody error…..[as] they all grew accustomed to the smell of death,” civilians, enemy soldiers, and fellow Marines alike.  After reading Bowden’s account of the urban warfare in Hue one wonders about events in Mosul, Iraq today as American forces were not well trained or equipped for street to street warfare.  American Marines had not confronted this type of “room to room, hand to hand” combat since Seoul in 1950.  In fact Bowden is quite correct in stating that the American command was caught completely flatfooted as they believed that such “ a swift and cunning coup was unimaginable.” When confronted with the enormity of Tet, and how severely they underestimated what they were up against as they tried to retake the city with many Marines being sacrificed.  Bowden stresses the ignorance of American commanders who gave many orders without any real knowledge of the actual situation in Hue`  No matter the carnage to US troops many commanders, especially Westmoreland “seemed almost oblivious to the largest single battle of the Tet Offensive, if not of the entire war, underway in Hue`.”

What the Tet Offensive showed was the ability of the enemy to prepare a clandestine attack that was a remarkable feat of planning and coordination, and that the enemy could reach any part of the country it wished, but in the end the invaders made no lasting gains.  What they accomplished was providing fodder for the anti-war movement in the United States, creation of doubt in many Americans and their politicians as they achieved a psychological victory, not a military one as the expected “rise of South Vietnamese civilians” against the Diem regime never occurred.

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Bowden also explores the uglier aspects of war.  American atrocities are described as is the racism that existed by both sides.  Substance abuse is also discussed as for many soldiers it would have been difficult to survive without using drugs.  One of the most haunting aspects that Bowden addresses is the issue of grief, something that there was not time for in Hue.  Death hovered over each combatant and was a daily occurrence, and when one soldier went down, their compatriots did not have the time to deal with it properly – a price that would be paid on the battlefield, and if they were lucky enough to survive, when they returned home.

If there is one major criticism of Bowden’s work it is that the author is determined to include almost every experience the combatants were involved in.  The result is that at times the flow of the narrative becomes somewhat disjointed.  However, this should not detract from the overall quality of his work as he has produced a prodigious account of what occurred in Hue`, particularly in the context of the overall war itself.  Bowden has produced the most complete account of Tet and the Battle for Hue` that has been written and his approach should satisfy historians and the general reader alike.

 

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(The most iconic picture of the evacuation of US Marines from Hue` on February 17, 1968)

BENEATH A SCARLET SKY by Mark Sullivan

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(Italian Resistance in Milan during WWII)

Northern Italy, Milan in particular is the setting for Mark Sullivan’s new novel, BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY.  Sullivan tells us that he has written a historical recreation as opposed to a history of the 1944-1945 period.  For the reader the book is considered a novel, but what makes it unique it is also a biography of Pino Lella, who at the age of seventeen, unbeknownst to him was about to become an Italian hero.  Since there is a paucity of primary materials Sullivan has created a work of fiction that reads like a historical monograph, as at times he is forced to employ his imagination to fill the void when the historical record does not exist.  Sullivan came across the story of Lella’s life quite by accident and once he learned of it he spent years conducting research, and was able to interview his subject and his relatives.  The author follows Lella’s life throughout the war, when it suddenly changes as the allies begin to bomb Milan and his family’s home is destroyed.  From that point on a young man growing up at seventeen, grows old by the age of eighteen.

Sullivan’s portrayal is detailed and describes an amazing life story.  Lella’s existence before the allied bombing in June, 1943 consisted of fantasies about girls, listening to jazz on the BBC, and wondering when the Americans would liberate Milan.  After the bombing began Lella is recruited by Cardinal Shuster and Father Re to help bring refugees to freedom across the Alps to Switzerland.  Despite his age, Lella was an experienced mountain climber and Father Re physically prepared him for the demanding task.  After explaining the plight of Jews in Italy Father Re convinced Lella of the importance of his mission.  Lella’s treks across the mountains coincided with allied advances up the Italian boot, as Sullivan does an excellent job transcribing military events in Italy throughout the novel.  The author effectively conveys the danger of Lella’s mountain crossings in a realistic manner describing the many obstacles he faced, i.e., snow, ice, avalanches, steep cliffs, a part from dodging the SS, Italian partisans and bandits.  These experiences help explain how he grew into manhood so quickly.

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(Mussolini’s Black Shirts marching through Milan)

Conveying hundreds of refugees across the mountain to safety would be enough to make Lella a hero.  But, after seven months his parents ordered him to join the German army as a way of avoiding being sent to the Russian front.  As luck would have it he is spotted by General Hans Leyers, the number two Nazi figure in Italy and is drafted to be his driver.  Lella is again recruited this time by the Italian resistance to become an allied spy because of his access to the most powerful man in Italy.  Lella was quite successful as a translator and driver for Leyers and was able to provide important information to the Italian resistance who forwarded that information to the Allied High Command.  Lella grew to hate Leyers as he witnessed the forced labor, more accurately use of slaves to assist the Wehrmacht.  Lella nicknames Leyers the “Pharaoh’s Slave Master.”  He also was exposed to numerous killings of innocent people, particularly Jews, with many women and children as victims.

Within this story of heroism Sullivan integrates the love story between Lella and a women named Anna.  Their relationship is comingled with Lella’s spy craft as she is the maid to Leyers’ mistress.  It is a wonderful time for Lella and Anna as their relationship blossoms in the midst of war.  Sullivan’s description reads like a fictional love story, but in reality it is an obsession by two people for each other as a fantasy and diversion from the war.  The reality of war is that Leyers, in addition to the murder of innocent people by the thousands, is stealing food and supplies from the Italian people for his troops and leaving Italy to starve.  Events in Italy grew worse as the Allied High Command kept withdrawing men and supplies and sending them to France in preparation for the Normandy invasion.

Lella’s difficulties with Leyers was important, but even more so that he was torn as Italian was set against Italian as Partisans and Fascists had their own civil war that grew more intense as the conflict began to come to a conclusion.  There are a number of poignant scenes as Lella’s own brother Mimo, a resistance fighter accuses him of being a Nazi.  As the war comes to an end Lella must defend himself as many thought he had cooperated with the Germans.  Few knew he was a spy.

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(The body of Benito Mussolini and his mistress hung by Partisans in April, 1945)

Sullivan uses the liberation of Auschwitz as affirmation for what Lella believes he has witnessed.  More and more he felt revulsion for working with Leyers even though his work was so important to the allies.  As the war comes to an end it becomes difficult to determine who was a partisan fighter and who was a traitor.  Sullivan vividly portrays the consequences of this difficulty which will have disastrous implications for Lella.

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Sullivan presents the entire Lella family and what they went through during the war.  Michele, Lella’s father, Aunt Greta, and Uncle Albert play important roles in the resistance and find their personal lives are impacted greatly by their work.  Let me reiterate the book is fiction, but not really.  It is written in a simple and conversational style but we get the full effect of Lella’s bravery and heroism.  He will pay an enormous price for his work and it will take him a number of years following the war to heal his emotional scars.

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(Liberation of Milan)

Sullivan offers a useful epilogue to his story that follows the main characters throughout the post war era.  What is most disturbing is how the United States will coopt Nazis like Leyers and use them during the Cold War allowing them to escape punishment for their deeds.  BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY is a well-conceived novel that has the ring of truth throughout, and an amazing story of heroism that had been buried for many years after the war.

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(The Italian Resistance in Milan during WWII)

 

 

BIRDMAN by Mo Hayder

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Mo Hayder’s, BIRDMAN introduces us to her new character Jack Caffery, a Detective Investigator with the London police department.  Almost immediately Caffery is confronted with a strange murder as a body is found in the Millenium Dome in southeast London.  Once the police respond and excavate the site they locate four more bodies, and the possibility they are dealing with a serial killer.

 

Jack Caffery is a very complex individual who is haunted by the childhood disappearance of his brother, Ewan.  When he was eight he and Ewan were playing in a tree house when they got into a fight and his brother ran away never to be found.  A pedophile lived in their neighborhood, but nothing could be proven that he was involved.  Jack’s mother blamed him and their relationship was ruined.  Later as an adult Jack’s parents were happy to sell him his childhood home that brought him close to his neighbor, John Ivan Penderecki, the suspected pedophile.  Even in adulthood Jack carried the guilt of his brother’s disappearance with him each day.  His work as a detective always seemed conducted with Evan in the background.

 

In addition to his guilt over Evan, Jack is involved with a woman named Veronica who is in remission from Hodgkin’s disease, but after six months he wants to call it quits, when she tells home the cancer is back.  She uses the disease as a ploy to keep Jack until one day he learns the truth.  With all of this baggage, Jack is trying to solve multiple murders.  Jack is convinced that the murderer is white with a medical background.  Since the crime scene was near a hospital it all seemed to fit in place except for the fact that a racist colleague pushes a black drug dealer as the perpetrator.  Jack is now in a race with an incompetent colleague for evidence and wastes a great deal of time.

 

Hayder does an excellent job developing her characters, particularly Toby Harteveld, a former medical student who has inherited an enormous amount of wealth from his parents.  His problem is a sick mother who mentally abused him as a child.  Another important character is Rebecca, an artist who rooms with Joni Marsh who knew all of the victims.  The problem is that Jack becomes emotionally involved with Rebecca which influences his investigation.

 

Hayder builds her plot very carefully and about half way through the story she recalibrate her approach drawing the reader further into to her web.  Out of the blue a neighbor begins to hear things, but she is the type who complains to the police each Monday morning so she is ignored.  Jack continues his race with a colleague who is bent on prosecuting an innocent man.

Hayder does an exceptional job integrating Jack’s private life and his own demons into  the story.  She has a very empathetic approach that makes her characters very real as they try and cope with everyday issues as the hunt for the killer progresses.

 

When all seems to be coming together, Hayder introduces a diabolical twist that at once brings disgust, but also a curiosity of how two murderers came together as partners in a pact of perversion, and how their crimes would finally be solved.  I must warn that there are a number of scenes that are not for the squeamish and can be very troubling.  Their inclusion is important in understanding the murderers and what the police were up against.

 

Since this is Hayder’s first Jack Caffery novel which captures the imagination in a crisp and somewhat harrowing manner I am looking forward to others in the series.  Hayder’s provides a chilling narrative at times, but also a sensitivity to the plight she places her characters in.  For me Mo Hayder is now on my watch list.

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THE WILD INSIDE by Christine Carbo

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(Glacier National Park, Montana)

During the Fall, 1987 fourteen year old Ted Systead is camping with his father at Oldman Lake on the lower eastern corner of Glacier National Park when the unthinkable occurs. So begins Christine Carbo’s first suspense novel, THE WILD SIDE as Ted’s father is dragged away and killed by a grizzly bear as Ted escapes with his life. We soon learn that it was a difficult recovery for Ted physically and emotionally, leaving scars in adulthood as he became a special agent for services Eighteen Eleven for the Department of the Interior. He is one of the agents in charge of homicide investigations in the western national parks from their Denver office. Solving murders is his job, but at the same time, despite his teenage experience he develops an emotional and passionate attachment to Ursula arctos horribilis  – Grizzly bears.

Ted is an emotionally damaged person whose character is the product of a stunted childhood caused by the death of his father. Carbo develops Ted’s character slowly as the mystery unfolds. We witness the failure of his marriage after his wife, Shelly who did all she could to save their relationship, sees it collapse once she suffers a miscarriage. Carbo effectively integrates Ted’s story and personality flaws into the murder plot she constructs and brings in a number of interesting characters, particularly Monty Harris, his new partner, Joe Smith, Chief of the park police, and Smith’s family to make her story work.

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The case involves the death of Victor Lance, a meth user, blackmailer, gambler, among his many shortcomings. At first it appears that Lance was mauled by a bear, but once Ted begins his investigation he realizes that Lance was shot and tied to a tree before the bear finished him off. Ted’s state of mind and investigation are heavily influenced by his childhood memories concerning his father’s death. Since Ted grew up in the West Glacier area many people from his past became part of his investigation. Especially hard for him is working with the Park Superintendent, Eugene Ford who had investigated his father’s death who now had his own agenda for solving the Lance murder. Since Ted’s life is integrated into the plot and we get to know as much about him as we do about the crime.

The infrastructure of the meth trade is on full display including the corruption within law enforcement that allowed it to proliferate. Ted finds himself in a bind as higher ups want the bear that mauled Lance set free which fits the Park’s agenda, but does not facilitate his investigation. Ted believes the bear has swallowed the bullet that killed Lance and hopes it will “expunge” the evidence. Lou Shelton appears to be the perfect suspect, but Ted believes that despite the evidence that points to him, the case is much more complex. Carbo creates a number of surprising twists and turns as Ted finally gets to the bottom of the crime as well as his own emotional issues. Carbo’s ending will both surprise and create a moral dilemma in terms of when is murder justifiable.

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Ted Systead is a wonderful character and the way Carbo brings her first novel to a conclusion it is obvious that this will be the beginning of a new suspense series that centers in Glacier National Park. Another important aspect of the novel is the beauty of Glacier that is on full display. Having visited the park two years ago the images presented by Carbo brought back the amazing views my wife and I experienced. I enjoyed her first effort and I look forward to MORTAL FALL her next book.

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(Glacier National Park, Montana)