THE PIANO TUNER by Daniel Mason

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(A French Erard piano)

 

Imagine you are an unassuming piano tuner living in London.  You are bespectacled, self-effacing and a master of your craft, particularly when it comes to a special type of piano.  Your wife Katherine thinks the world of your talent and you have a special relationship.   All seems well, then you are summoned to the British War Office in 1886 and you are told about a strange request from a Surgeon-Major who is stationed in the eastern area of Burma.  This scenario forms the basis of Daniel Mason’s exceptional first novel, THE PIANO TUNER.

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The core of the novel takes place in the far reaches of the British Empire where the War Office is concerned about French encroachment on Burma that could lead to issues in India.  The French are ensconced by the Mekong River close to Siam which borders on Burma.  There is growing discontent among the princes in the region, but the British have a special individual who seems successful in maintaining support for the British in this region called the Shan states.  The individual is Dr. Anthony J. Carroll.  The Surgeon-Major, his military title is a Renaissance type of person whose interests know no bounds.  He has been stationed in Burma for over twelve years and has become an expert in the fauna and flora of the region, the culture of the people, has conducted a myriad of medical research to help the Burmese, and possesses a love of music.  Carroll lives in a far-flung outpost in eastern Burma, called Mae Lwin, and among the natives he is seen as a poet-soldier.  One of the keys to Carroll’s success is an 1840 Erard grand piano which he had the War Office send him.  It seems music is a means of calming the people of the region who see it as having wonderful powers.  The problem is that the humidity and brigands in the region have reduced the piano’s efficiency.  Hence the call to London to dispatch a piano tuner to Carroll’s jungle fort east of Mandalay, Burma.  This is Carroll’s stated request, but his goals run deeper.  He needs his piano repaired, but he needs a kindred soul to help him maintain peace in the region without the dispatch of more British troops.

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(Colonial Burma)

The recipient of that request is Edgar Drake, a London piano tuner with expertise in repairing and tuning Erard pianos.  Drake is also a dilettante when it comes to knowledge.  Though he was not formally educated at the schools of the British upper class, his self-education places him on an intellectual level above most British prep school types.  These men, Carroll and Drake are the chief protagonists of the novel and their relationship, though unusual is the key element as the story evolves.

Mason introduces many characters, and for each one a picture forms in the reader’s mind as to their strengths, weaknesses, looks, and the personalities that are behind the mask which is their public face.  Mason conveys his story through several vehicles including letters from Drake to his wife, the writings of Carroll, as well as the myth and traditions of the Burmese people. Individuals like the infamous bandit, Twet Nga Lu; Captain Trevor Nash-Burnham of the British army; Nok Lek; a fifteen-year-old fighter who protects Carroll; Khin Myo, Drake’s female caretaker all have important roles to play.

The manner of late 19th century British imperialism is present for all to see.  The haughtiness and racism of British officers is clear as is seen in several instances as the Burmese people do not measure up to English standards.  Mason conveys the interactions between the British and Burmese people very carefully and the underlying feelings of each is easy to understand from the dialogue. Mason takes the reader on a journey that begins in London and takes Drake across the Middle East and Southwest Asia until he reaches Burma.  In so doing the sights and sounds of ocean and river travel in these areas are fascinating.  Once Drake has arrived, he experiences Burmese culture particularly the “puppet dramas” that are endemic to the region.  The topography of Burma is explored in detail and as the novel progresses one wonders if Drake will ever return home.

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Mason is a literary craftsman with elements of Joseph Conrad throughout the novel.  His sentences flow as do his descriptions and dialogue that easily capture the interest of the reader.  His plot moves at a very even plane, then it reaches a crescendo as Drake is placed in an untenable position as Carroll tries to implement his own agenda which British higher ups are totally against.  A key element to the novel concerns Carroll; what does he really believe, is he trustworthy, and in the end is he another “Kurtz” type figure from Conrad’s THE HEART OF DARKNESS or a Russian spy?

Mason’s own background makes the subject matter of the novel a perfect fit.  When he was a young medical student with a biology degree from Harvard, he studied malaria on the Thai-Burmese border and in northeast Burma.  In fact, he wrote the novel “between lessons at medical school.”  This makes him almost an authority on certain aspects of the region and contributes greatly to the success of the novel.  Mason’s ability to integrate the history of the region makes the violent nature of British imperialism as it tries to consolidate its hold on eastern Burma much clearer.  If there is a weakness to the novel it is the amount of time spent on Drake’s journey to Burma and what he experiences which take up almost two-thirds of the book, however this is offset by Mason’s expertise in the technical detail and methodical tuning of the piano and his discussion of malaria treatment once Drake becomes ill.

Whatever flaws exist, they are superseded by a dramatic and intense story that has left this reader excited to read Mason’s new novel, THE WINTER SOLDIER that deals with war, medicine, family, and the sweeping panorama of history surrounding World War I.

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(A French Erard piano)

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BABYLON BERLIN by Volker Kutscher

Image result for photo of Weimar Berlin 1929(Weimar Berlin, 1929)

After recently visiting the Jewish quarter of Budapest, former Nazi sites in Nuremberg, and several German towns along the Danube and Rhine Rivers, 20th century German history has taken hold of my thoughts.  When I travel I have a personal tradition of trying to discover regional authors who have written historical mysteries about countries I have visited.  In this case I have come upon, Volker Kutscher’s first novel, BABYLON BERLIN, which introduces Book I of his Gerson Rath series.

Gerson Rath is an interesting protagonist who stems from a somewhat questionable background.  A former Cologne detective, he was forced to leave that police department due to a shooting incident where Rath was strongly implicated.  Because of the influence of his father, Police Director Engelbert Rath, he was able to transfer to a vice squad in the Berlin Police Department as an investigative detective.  From that point on Kutscher provides an insightful look at the underside of Weimar Berlin in 1929 as the depression looms and right-wing parties begin to proliferate.  Kutscher explores the role of drugs, pornography, and the actions of immigrant elements and their effect on German crime, politics and society in general.

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(Weimar Berlin, 1929 witnessed the rise of the Nazi Party)

Rath soon finds himself involved in a series of vice raids, but his heart is in solving homicides, not busting pimps, prostitutes, or porno-film producers.  After several murders take place, Rath sees an opportunity to solve them as a vehicle of self-glorification to gain a promotion to the Homicide Division.  He keeps information from his superiors, becomes involved in an accidental murder which he hides, false in love with a stenographer in Homicide, all on the way to achieving a promotion, due in large part once again to his father’s influence.

As Rath proceeds with his own investigations, the pervading atmosphere in Berlin is one of fear of communist demonstrations that could lead to a coup against the government.  This fear was further reinforced with the emergence of a group called the “Red Fortress.” Pre-Hitlerite Berlin is on full display as we witness the rise of anti-Semitism and the Nazi Party, the cafes and dance halls infested with alcohol and cocaine, opium dens, mob killings, corruption, and labor unrest.  Berlin is a city where Communists and ultra-nationalists are at war with each other to wreck the Weimar Republic’s fragile democracy. Another component to Kutscher’s plot emerges as Rath discovers a connection with a circle of oppositional Russian exiles who try to purchase weapons with smuggled gold stolen from Stalinist Russia.  Rath’s actions and machinations should be self-destructive as he himself becomes a murder suspect.  Rath is a character with many secrets, which include PTSD from combat in World War I, and Kutscher has no compunction about presenting Rath as an individual who is morally compromised as he tries to achieve a greater good for his city.

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(1929, Hitler the politician in Weimar Berlin)

Kutscher introduces several interesting characters to carry his novel.  Among them are Charlotte Ritter, a stenographer in the Homicide Department that Rath falls in love with; Elizabeth Behnke, Rath’s landlady who is jilted by Rath after a one night stand; Detective Chief Inspector Wilhelm Bohm, a boisterous commander that Rath must deal with; Dr. Magnus Schwartz, the coroner who repeatedly tests Rath’s reaction to autopsies;  Berthold Weinert, a newsman and neighbor of Rath; Commissioner Zorgiebel, a friend of Rath’s father, who needed publicity the way an addict needs his drug fix; Bruno Wolter, Rath’s partner;  Countess Svetlana Sorokina, whose family held $80 million worth of gold; Alexej Ivanovitsch Kardakov, worked to smuggle gold into Germany; and Johann Marlow, a cocaine dealer linked to the Red Fortress plot. Other criminals and interesting personality types are also present representing the Russian mob, drug dealers, murderers, and Nazis, all designed to complete a complex plot line that meanders throughout the novel.  For Rath, as the investigation proceeds he is forced to ask himself; “how was it that every time he learned something new about the case, he understood less than before?”

Kutscher has written a fast-paced story that seems to twist and turn from page to page.  It will keep the reader’s attention through an excellent translation from German and the end result should surprise everyone.  The end of the novel forms the basis of a continuing series involving Detective Investigator Rath in the second installment, entitled, THE SILENT DEATH.  For those interested, BABYLON BERLIN, currently forms the basis of a new series on Netflix.

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(Weimar Berlin, 1933)

THE UNFORTUNATE ENGLISHMAN by John Lawton

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(Berlin Wall)

John Lawton is perhaps one of the best practitioners of the art of Cold War noir.  He has written two separate series that deal with historical events behind the Iron Curtain and other areas and each has a scintillating plot that reeks of historical probability.  The third installment of Lawton’s Joe Wilderness series, THE UNFORTUNATE ENGLISHMEN is an excellent example of this successful genre.  The novel is set in the early 1960s with Nikita Khrushchev master of the Soviet Union in competition for the hearts and minds of third world countries with John F. Kennedy.  In England MI6 is growing concerned about Soviet nuclear capability as are the Americans.

The story unfolds with a return to post war Berlin when former MI6 operative Joe Wildnerness accidently shoots a woman who is involved with a plot to smuggle a nuclear physicist out of East Berlin to send her to newly created state of Israel.  Wilderness is arrested and is freed by the West German authorities through the intervention of Alec Berne-Jones, an MI6 fixture for years, who happens to be Wilderness’ father-in-law.  In return for his freedom, Wilderness agrees to rejoin MI6.  Further, Lawton introduces Bernard Forbes Campbell Alleyn, a British Squadron Leader who is shot down over Silesia in March, 1963, captured and finally liberated by the Russians.  The NKVD, never would never miss an opportunity, takes the body of Alleyn which they have recovered and use his identity and substitute an agent, Leonoid L’vovich Liubimov to infiltrate the British Defense establishment.

British Intelligence has its own plans to infiltrate the Soviet Defense apparatus.  It seems that their entire Russian operation has been rolled by a treasonous spy by the name of George Blake, who of course had ties to the Cambridge Five.  MI6 decides to develop an “out of the box” agent, Geoffrey Masefield, an expert in metallurgy who suffers from low self-esteem, but had delusions that he could be a successful spy.  The story that is concocted deals with idium, a rare metal that Masefield, posing as an industrial representative will try and purchase in Moscow.  The goal is to gain Soviet interest in Masefield which would allow him to visit certain sites that might be of interest.  Lawton’s development of Masefield’s character and spy ability is classic and his adventures in Russia become a core of the novel.  Masefield develops a relationship with Tanya Dmitrievna Tsitikova his “Russian watcher,” of course a KGB spy, as well as Professor of Physics Grigory Grigoryevich Matsekyolyev of the Leningrad Polytechnical Institute, who also is a KGB spy, which makes for interesting scenes and dialogue.

Lawton’s novel is presented in layers.  First, introducing the major characters and their possible relationship to the world of intelligence.  Second, developing each character fully, and lastly tying them together in an intricate plot that attracts the readers complete attention.  While doing so Lawton integrates historical events, concepts, and figures that provide the novel with an air of accuracy when applied to the course of the Cold War.  Events that are easily recognizable are the Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting in Vienna, the U2 Incident, the building of the Berlin Wall, trading of spies, among others.  The realism that is evident does at times seems at times to be a tad far fetched as is evidences by Wilderness’ meeting with Khrushchev on the western side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall in late September, 1961.  But to Lawton’s credit his sarcasm papers over several situations as his somewhat dark humor presides.

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Lawton presents all the clichés associated with the world of spies through the character of Masefield.  Further, the reader gets a sense of Moscow during the Cold War with the lines for poor quality goods, the black market, overcrowded and run down housing, and the ever present KGB which seems to be everywhere.  Other important characters play important roles.  Wilderness’s wife, Judy, a saucy BBC producer, and daughter of her husband’s boss tries to keep her husband on track.  Tom Radley is an incompetent British MI6 Station Chief in Berlin who makes a series of errors, Nell Burkhardt who was close with Wilderness after the war and finds herself running a refugee camp, the Marooned Centre in Berlin in the early 1960s, Frank Spoleta, a self-indulgent CIA operative who seems to alienate everyone he encounters, among others.

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(President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev)

British intelligence chiefs are in a quandary as to how to further employ Masefield.  Wilderness is extremely skeptical in extending Masefield’s leash, so he can try and penetrate the Soviet Defense Ministry further.  On the other hand, Radley, the Berlin Chief wants to provide his agent carte blanche.  The result is that Radley’s view is put forth leading to disastrous consequences and his removal from his position.  At this point the novel takes on an exceptionally serious hue as M16 officials, Wilderness, and his father-in-law must change course in order to contain the intelligence gaffe, and deal with the fallout that may foster more drastic Soviet actions.

Lawton, as per usual has written an exciting Cold War mystery, with strong character development, the ability to integrate the unusual into his dialogue and story line, and take the reader back and forth from post war Berlin to the machinations of the 1960s.  For those who enjoy David Downing, Olen Steinhauer, Philip Kerr, or Luke McCallin, they will find Lawton to be equal to, if not a step up in his approach to Cold War espionage.  Lawton is a great read, no matter what book of his you might pick up, so enjoy.

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(Berlin Wall, upon completion)

LIE IN THE DARK by Dan Fesperman

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(Sarajevo during the Yugoslav Civil War-1990s)

The names Slobadan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, and Franjo Tudman probably have long receded from our minds.  Perhaps places like Srebrenica, Racak, Banja Luka, the sites of massacres during the 1990s Yugoslav civil war might jog your memory, if not Dan Fesperman’s novel, LIE IN THE DARK explores the terrors and murder associated with that dark time concentrating on Sarajevo.  The story will take you back to a period of intolerance, ethnic cleansing, and wonderment about the depths of evils that people succumb to.

Fesperman sets the tone of his novel from the outset as homicide investigator, Vlado Petric observes the early morning grave digging crew unearthing bodies that were victims of shelling and sniper fire the previous day.  His observations go directly to the absurdity of war as he describes grave digging during a period of genocide, the continuous cycle of snipers and shelling as almost normal vocations.  Sarajevo and its environs presented a universe of slaughter, death, and destruction which was the daily norm for the city.  It is a story dealing with human depravity, treachery, and ethnic cleansing among Serbs, Croats, and Moslems.  To what end was the glory of this national ideal, a belief resting on genocide with groups like the Chetniks, the Ustasha, and others committing murder daily.  In this environment Petric believed that what he did made a difference, but his rationalization did not always protect him from the reality of this brutal civil war.

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(Siege of Sarajevo)

Petric was Catholic and a Croat who had sent his wife and daughters to Germany to escape the civil war, a conflict where the Serbs were bent on leveling Sarajevo layer upon layer if they could not capture it.  Fesperman’s description of the morass of the civil war places the reader amid the carnage that was Sarajevo.  During the shelling Petric tried to maintain his sanity by painting miniature soldiers from diverse historical periods, an occupation that became his therapy.  Petric’s secondary therapy was police work, investigating murders amidst the war raging around him.  A world where the paucity of food, supplies and the necessities of life became a battle of scavenging, barter, and other strategies to deal with the black market on which their lives depended.

The novel centers on the murder of Esmir Vitas, the Chief of the Ministry of the Special Police.  Petric is placed in charge of the investigation as he is seen as not being tainted by the war, which made him palatable to United Nations bureaucrats.  Petric pursues a standard approach to his investigation, but he soon runs into road blocks forcing him to stretch police procedures to their limits.  Vitas’ murder goes deeper than meets the eye after Petric conducts a few interviews, and takes the investigation into Sarajevo’s underworld of gangs, war lords, and government and United Nations officials who have their own agendas and cannot be trusted.

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(a woman risks her life for food in Sarajevo)

Fesperman presents a parallel track in the novel as he describes the dehumanizing nature of the war, and how the ongoing fighting affects people’s daily lives.  For the civilian population there is no such thing as a casual stroll.  If you went out for food, desperate from hunger you took your life into your own hands, and most likely you would become a target for a sniper.  Fesperman spends an inordinate amount of time presenting the lunacy of war, but he does provide glimpses into the bygone age when life was normal, but boys playing basketball off a bent rim with sniper fire all around is a bit disconcerting to categorize as normal.  Petric, like others has difficulty coping with the separation from his family as he realizes he does not know his daughter after two years of being apart following her first birthday.  He can speak by telephone for a brief time monthly, but this just heightens his anguish.

Perhaps Fesperman’s most interesting character is Milan Glavas, a white haired individual with a hacking cough who was an expert in Yugoslav art and antiquities from World War II to the 1990s.  Petric learned from Glavas about the lists of artifacts and other objects that had been stolen since the war.  The recovery of objects from the Nazis led to a black market trade that disseminated art works throughout Yugoslavia and other countries.  Glavas had gone to Germany at the end of the war to investigate and he became a wealth of knowledge concerning the location of these items.  A transfer file had been created which had been destroyed in a fire, but Glavas supposedly was the only source for that information.  The novel takes on a different tact as Glavas, “the curator of the world’s most scattered collection.  The shepherd, if you will, of all of [Yugoslavia’s] wandering lambs,” is introduced.   It seems the black market trade, the role of certain military officials, bureaucrats, and United Nations representatives is greatly involved, and the question is how does Vitas’ murder fit into the main plot. What results is a fascinating story were by a senile woman, a reluctant prostitute, and an English reporter play prominent roles.

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Fesperman is masterful story teller with excellent command of the historical information that makes this novel believable.  Fesperman is not your typical novelist as he has constructed the netherworld of art seizures and recovery from World War II.  He explores how items are smuggled, and the lengths that some go to enrich themselves from this illegal trade.  For some the story might be far-fetched, but seen in the context of the 1990s in Yugoslavia, it is an accurate setting.  I have read a few Fesperman’s later novels including, THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO and THE WARLORD’S SON, and LIE IN THE DARK begins a pattern of excellence that is followed in all of his later books.  Fesperman has become one of my favorite practitioners of historical “mystery” fiction, and his gripping style and character development should attract a wide audience.

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(Sarajevo during 1990s Yugoslav Civil War)

BOUND FOR GOLD by William Martin

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(1849 California Gold Rush)

William Martin remains one of the most accomplished purveyors of historical fiction today.  In his new novel, BOUND FOR GOLD, the sixth in his Peter Fallon series, the Boston book dealer and his girlfriend Evangeline Carrington become caught up in the search for a lost journal that will transport them to the mid-nineteenth century California gold rush.  Employing his traditional approach of alternating historical information from a specific period with the present Martin has written an engrossing novel that is based on sound historical research and a novelist’s eye for fine detail.

Martin begins his tale with James Spencer, an eighty-three year old scion of wealth confronted by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and resulting fire.  Scared, Spencer races to his office as the fire approaches to save his journal and other personal papers that recount his and his wife’s role in building California. As Spencer travels to his office he witnesses the devastation that the earthquake and approaching fire have caused.  Martin effectively describes the damage to historical buildings and sites through Spencer’s eyes.  What separates Martin from other writers is that each page of his novels wreak of history, no matter the plot line, character, or any given situation.

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The corruption, greed, and lawlessness of 1849 San Francisco is on full display.  As Martin takes the reader into the river beds and mines that men explore for gold as the most negative aspects of human nature come to the fore.  Martin’s creation of James Spencer’s journals provides a vehicle to disseminate his story and introduce numerous characters, many of which are unsavory, naive, and somewhat honest as they set out from Boston for the gold fields of California.

The Sagamore Mining Group headed by Samuel Hodges hires the “William Winter” captained by Nathan Trask to transport his men west.  Others are included, especially Jason Willis who would like to set up a mercantile trade using California as his base of operations instead of panning for gold.  James Spencer, hired by the Boston Transcript to provide coverage for articles about the discovery of gold bears witness to all events and machinations as they sail around the Cape of Good Hope and arrive in San Francisco.  Upon their arrival Martin shifts his focus back to the 21st century to Peter Fallon’s son LJ, who is a lawyer for a major San Francisco law firm travels east to inform his father that he was overseeing the liquidation of the Spencer estate for his law firm.  He asks his father to appraise the Spencer rare book collection and a number of manuscripts.  The problem is that among the papers is Spencer’s journal describing his observations of the 19th century gold rush which have gone missing.  Spencer’s great-grandaughter placed a codicil in her will that stated that before the estate could be liquidated, all seven original sections of the journal, scattered among his heirs had to be gathered and digitalized.  Each of the heirs had their own agenda and Maryanne Rogers, the great-granddaughter had been killed in a hit and run accident in a crosswalk as she was crossing the street to meet LJ’s boss, Johnson Barber.

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Martin introduces numerous characters from the 19th and 21st centuries to carry out his plot.  Janiva Toler, Spencer’s wife; Samuel Hodges the head of the Sagamore Mining Company; Michael Flynn, an Irish waiter, who resents Bostonian wealth will become Spencer’s partner; Cletis Smith, late of the US Army, another Spencer partner; Manion Sturgis who owns a winery in the gold region; Wei Chin, a member of the anti-Manchu Sam Hi Hui who escaped China for America are among the 19th century contingent.  Mary Ching Cutler, LJ’s fiancé; her father Jack Cutler; Chinese gang interests in San Francisco; Johnson “Jack” Barber” LJ’s boss; and William Donnelly, a retired Kern County detective are among the 21st century notables.  The dominant figure of course is Peter Fallon who as in all Martin’s previous historical renditions is a solid figure who employs a sarcastic and somewhat humorous approach to life as he works to solve the mystery of the stolen journal that documents Spencer’s quest for fortune and alludes to a mythical river of gold.  The diary supposedly reveals the location of an actual river which could set off a modern gold rush, and Fallon is up against present day elements ranging from the Hong Kong Triad, winery owners, Chinatown thugs, and even people with an environmental agenda who want to control any new discoveries.

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Martin effectively intertwines his historical saga with a contemporary story.  His work follows on two tracks one reaches back from 1849 toward the present, and the other works toward the past from the present.  The key is when the two tracks meet.  Martin introduces numerous powerful men in the novel as well as explores San Francisco and its multiethnic citizens.  BOUND FOR GOLD is a story of racism, rough justice and occasional kindness, and if you enjoyed any of Martin’s previous Fallon adventures, his latest will not disappoint-as Martin remains a superior story teller.

Image result for photos of the 1849 gold rush(1849 California Gold Rush)

A TERRIBLE COUNTRY by Keith Gessen

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(The Kremlin, Moscow)

At a time when Russia, Putin, conspiracy, and collusion dominate the news cycle it is wonderful to escape into a work of fiction that is absorbing, appealing to human emotion on many levels, and sadly, a comment on the reality of Russia today.  As useful and engrossing as Keith Gessen’s new book A TERRIBLE COUNTRY is, it creates the anxiety and frustration that one associates with Putin’s Russia.  Gessen is a Russian translator of poetry and short stories, but also of Nobel Prize winner Svertlana Alexievich’s VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL. Gessen like his sister Masha Gessen the author of A MAN WITHOUT A FACE: THE UNLIKELY RISE OF VLADIMIR PUTIN was born in Russia and raised in the United States, has an affinity for the Russian people who he believes are suffering from the Putin bargain, “you give up your freedoms, I make you rich.  Not everyone was rich, but enough people were making do that the system held.  And who was I to tell them they were wrong?  If they liked Putin, they could have him.”

Gessen, like his main character Andrei Kaplan seems to be in a permanent state of semi-exile, somewhat naive, and in search of something-an academic position, a sense of who he really was perhaps.  He writes in a somewhat John Updike style as he describes Andrei as a person who cannot seem to achieve the academic success that his peers have attained.  He has a PhD in Russian literature, but cannot earn a faculty position at the university level.  As a result he earns a living by teaches online courses, communicating through his blog.  Since the money is not sufficient to live in New York, and his girlfriend Sarah has just broken up with him he accepts his brother Dima’s request to return to Moscow to take care of their aging grandmother.  At the same time, Dima left Russia under strange circumstances for London, the reason of which becomes clearer later in the novel.

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(Vladimir Putin)

Upon his arrival in Moscow, Andrei learns that certain promises his brother had made were not true, but he resolves to try and learn as much from his grandmother, Baba Seva Efraimove Gekhtman about the Stalinist era as a basis for a journal article.  The scent of Stalinist Russia is put forth through his grandmother who suffers from dementia, much more so than Dima had let on, but despite this affliction the reader is exposed to aspects of Stalinist Russia and how it evolves into Putin’s Russia.  The same housing crisis that existed during Stalin’s regime remains.  We witness the uneven distribution of wealth and the Putin kleptocracy.  The FSB, much like the KGB in Soviet times seems everywhere among many examples.  It is interesting how Gessen uses the location of Baba Seva’s apartment, the center of Moscow, close to the Kremlin, Parliament, and FSB headquarters to explain the daily plight of Russians.

The novel takes place in 2008 as Andrei arrives at the time Russian troops are supposedly withdrawing from Georgia.  The 2008 financial crash is introduced and one can see how the Russians believe that the effect on Russia’s economy is the fault of the United States.  Andrei is miserable in this setting and his life seems meaningless.  He has no wife or children, he feels helpless in caring for his grandmother, he suffers from a lack of sleep and exercise, constantly searching to play in hockey games, and is forced to deal with the inane comments from students on his online blog.

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(Soviet style apartment complex, Moscow)

For Andrei Moscow seems quite boorish as he is rejected by women, fears FSB types, and a bureaucracy that results in long lines for himself and his ailing grandmother.  The transition from Stalinst tactics to that of Putin are clearly portrayed as his uncle has lost his life’s work as a geophysicist to Russ Oil, a conglomerate run by Putin’s cronies.  Russ Oil will also reappear as an enemy of Andrei’s brother Dima as they create a monopoly for gas station expansion on a new highway.  Putin’s mastery of the media emerges clearly.  “The world may see him as a cold bloodied killer, a ruthless dictator, a grave digger of Russian democracy.  But from the Russian perspective, well, he was our cold blooded killer, our ruthless dictator, our gravedigger.”

The book begins rather pedantically, and as the story develops the style grows from one of simplicity with little to challenge the reader mentally to a substantive view of Putin’s Russia, and the personal crisis that Andrei is experiencing.  This is accomplished as the author introduces a number of new characters; hockey goalies, oilmen, academics, and oppositionist writers.  However, the most important character remains Baba Seva who embodies the complex nature of Russian politics and society.  She lost her country home to capitalism, but received her apartment thanks to her work on a Stalinist propaganda film of course due to the removal of another family from their home.  Bab Seva had been a historian at Moscow State University, but as a Jew it appears she lost her position because of Stalin’s Doctor’s Plot in 1953.  Perhaps the best line in the novel is when Andrei refers to living in an apartment so close to the KGB/FSB, it “was like living down the street from Auschwitz.”

The question that Gessen asks through a female who rejects Andrei’s advances, is his main character really cut out to live in Russia?  The remark haunts Andrei as he tries to fit in somewhere in Russian society.  It seems he does so finally when he catches on to a losing hockey teams and plays games six nights a week.  More importantly he will make friends on the team.  Those friendships and the return of his brother Dima shift the focus of the story.

Andrei will finally acquire a subject to write a paper and publish, one of his motivating goals upon returning to Moscow.  The subject is in the form of Sergei an intellectual who has a theory concerning the development of capitalism in Russia and its links to Putin’s kleptocracy.  Andrei hopes an article might lead to an academic position.  He develops a strong friendship with Sergei, in addition to beginning a relationship with Yulia, another member of “October,” a small opposition group to Putin that Andrei has become part of.

Russia is a complicated topic. But Gessen combines sharp analysis with Updike type writing style.  This approach belies a deep knowledge of Russian history and literature.  The book is an important contribution as it allows its reader insights and a glimpse into a country that is very impactful for America and the world.  Election hacking has been occurring in the United States and Europe for at least a decade, as have killings of people who oppose Putin outside Russia, murderous actions in Syria, and the list goes on and on.  What is clear is that the United States must play close attention to Putin’s Russia, because their machinations are not going to end (particularly with the current administration in power) and we as a society must come to grips with that fact and pressure our government to take action to mitigate what has and will continue to occur.  Gessen’s contribution to this task is a wonderful novel that describes Russia as a country that constantly wore down its people as they went along with their daily pursuits.

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(The Kremlin, Moscow)

THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA: AN ILLUSTRATED NOVEL by Umberto Eco

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(Fascist propaganda)

For the longest time I have wanted to tackle one of Umberto Eco’s novels.  I knew they were unique so I have digested his fifth work, THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA.  To say the least the book was different from anything I have ever read before.  Eco introduces the main character a Giambattista Bodoni, with Yambo as a nickname suffering from memory loss due to a heart attack.  He lives in Milan and is fifty-nine years of age and he is crushed by the fact that he can remember things from the distant past, but nothing more recent.  He does not even know his name and it takes his wife Paola, who is a psychologist, and his physician, Dr. Gratarolo to introduce him to his identity and certain pathways of his life.  For Yambo familiarizing himself or relearning almost everything was similar to being Adam or Eve.

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(Josephine Baker, singer and actress)

Eco offers numerous ruminations on memory; its depth, how difficult it is at times to retrieve its contents, and how hard it is to move forward without the knowledge that is buried within.  For Yambo his memory is nothing but frustration.  The brain is an amazing instrument as he can remember four stanzas of Dante’s poetry, but can’t remember if he ever had an affair with Sibilla who is his assistant at his antiquarian bookstore.  Yambo’s heart attack has erased all memory of his own life while leaving every scrap of every book, comic strip, song, movie that he has ever experienced intact.  The most interesting part of the novel is the first part as he confronts his medical issue and tries to recapture his memory.  Eco incorporates sarcasm, and humor to relieve some Yambo’s tension, but his stress is evident.  The solution that is reached is that Yambo should visit his grandfather’s retreat at Solaro where he spent much of his childhood.  Since his grandfather was also a bookseller it is hoped that what is stored in the main house will stimulate Yambo and restore his memory.

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In examining the attic of his childhood Yambo feels like he is an intruder in a forbidden kingdom.  He travels from one section of the attic to another, and one crate or bookshelf to another trying to locate clues of his previous life.  In doing so we witness a man rummaging through the attic and study in a Piedmontese country house in search of his past.  Yambo reads for the first time, or rereads countless books from his past, many of which he recognizes along with listening to numerous records.  He comes across Sherlock Holmes, Flash Gordon, Jules Verne, among many titles by Italian authors.  Eco provides numerous illustrations to highlight Yambo’s findings.  Included are tins, cigarette cases, toys, calendars, dolls, soldiers, record cases, stamps, and of course numerous book jackets from his grandfather’s library.  For Yambo the mystery of Solara was that at every turn he would approach a revelation, and it would come to stop on the edge of a cliff, the invisible chasm that kept him in a fog.

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The book itself is not really a novel, but more of a revisiting of Eco’s past reading life.  The book’s illustrations are interesting, but not really necessary, perhaps they were thrown in to embellish the story.  The strong suit are a series of what appear to be essays on such diverse topics as Mussolini’s influence on children’s literature, his schoolboy notebooks depicting the exploits of Il Duce, Black Shirts, and colonial triumphs, then listening to a radio as the war turns to songs of bravery and coming defeat at Anzio, the landing at Sicily, bombing of Milan, all of life’s reality as the family had left the city to wait out the war in Solara.  Yambo would learn a great deal about his grandfather’s past in Solara as he searched for his own.  Particularly important were the reasons his grandfather turned from journalism to buying an old book shop.

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(Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire)

The most important episode of Yambo’s adolescence turned out to be a teenage crush on a girl named Lila Saba.  She would become an obsession for Yambo even after her family moved to Brazil.  He would grill his friend Gianni who knew her also as he continued his quest to remember her face well into adulthood, to the point when he learned her real name was not Lila, but Sibillia.

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(Fascist Italy stamp honoring Hitler and Mussolini)

In summation, Eco has presented a popular history of the 1930s and 1940s through his meandering approach to recapturing his childhood.  In doing so Yambo provides a narrative of World War II and its effect on Italy through the eyes of a boy.  For Yambo he becomes caught between listening to the messages of national glory and daydreaming about the fog in thinking about London and Sherlock Holmes.  In the end he would realize that he had rediscovered things that he and countless others had read, and aside from stories about his grandfather he had not relived his childhood, but he had relived the life of a generation.

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(Rita Hayworth)

Eco’s effort does not flow evenly.  One page is a narrative about family and life.  Another deals with the war.  The next might deal with the temptations that religion does not permit.  Moving on you are following Yambo’s reading history, then his opinion of film, stamps, and what not.  Then on to developing his sexuality and his obsession with Lila.  At times fascinating, at time engrossing, but also at times fantasy that can lose the reader’s attention.  Eco’s humor, sarcasm, and didactic knowledge reflect a fascinating author, but be prepared to concentrate fully because if you do not, you will get lost.

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GREEKS BEARING GIFTS by Philip Kerr

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(Nazis in front of the Parthenon during WWII)

In Philip Kerr’s thirteenth installment of his successful Bernie Gunther series we find the former Nazi/German detective living in Munich under the assumed name Christof Ganz working as a “mortuary attendant,” which Gunther viewed as an acceptable form of penance based on what he had done during the war.  Gunther’s soul had been poisoned between 1933 and 1945 and since that time he has done his best to maintain a sense of humanity by assuming different names and occupations.  GREEKS BEARING GIFTS is centered in Germany and Greece and has all the characteristics of other Gunther books including the protagonist’s sharp wit, sense of history, sarcasm, and a degree of empathy that one might not expect based on his background.  In the current rendition Kerr seems to go a bit further dealing with Gunther’s past to the point that at times it becomes a philosophical discourse on Nazism and what Germans can do to assuage their conscience.  Sadly, the author passed away on March 23rd, but the series will continue as number fourteen will be published posthumously sometime next year.

Kerr immediately involves Gunther in a convoluted plot encompassing a corrupt and somewhat sadistic “Criminal Secretary” in the Munich Police Department.  The man recognizes Gunther from his Kripo detective days in the early 1930s and coerces him to join him in a sting to steal a large political donation.  Gunther is able to disentangle himself from the situation and warns the “stings” victim, a lawyer named Max Merten about what was about to occur.  Merten is grateful and arranges a new job for Gunther at a large insurance company, Munich RE as a claims adjuster, a position that could maximize his detective skills as both types of positions involve determining whether people are lying.  Once Gunther begins his new job the plot begins to unfold.

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(Alois Brunner)

Munich RE, is the largest insurance company in Germany that in the past had insured concentration camps for the Nazis.  Headed by its Chairman, Herr Alois Alzheimer, and his assistant Herr Philipp Dietrich, both former SS members, two gentlemen whose only concerns are company profits.  They both take a shine to Gunther as he immediately solves a case whereby saving the company 23,000 reischmarks.  Having proven himself, Gunther is dispatched to Greece to deal with an insurance case involving a fire on the research boat, the Doris.

Throughout the novel, Kerr makes constant references to Nazi figures and crimes against humanity.  Employing Gunther’s sardonic wit, the author fills in a great deal of background pertaining to our protagonists Nazi past.  Kerr as usual presents numerous historical characters and events that are true to form.  His discussion of Konrad Adenauer’s background is completely accurate, as is his discussion of the port city of Salonika.  Kerr points out that the city held the largest Jewish population than any other area in Europe aside from Poland.  In 1939, Greece held  60,000 Jews, at the end of the war only 2,000 returned, one of which was Jaco Kapantzi a rich Salonikan Jew killed by the SD.

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(Max Merten)

Kerr effectively weaves a number of characters and plot lines in developing his story.  Gunther finds himself in the midst of a number of homicides once he arrives in Greece.  The first is the deaths of Munich RE policy holder, Siegfried Witzel, and Dr. Samuel Frizis, a Jewish lawyer.  Gunther’s presence at the murder scene creates an awkward situation as he is caught by Lt. Stauros Leventis, a Greek detective who is very sensitive about “former Nazis.”  The two agree to work with each other to try and figure out whether the killings and the boat fire are revenge killings by Jews for property stolen during the war or something more devious like the presence of Alois Brunner an escaped Austrian Schutzstaffel officer who worked as Adolf Eichmann’s assistant. Brunner is held responsible for sending over 100,000 European Jews to ghettos and internment camps in Eastern Europe and it seems Gunther may have run into him at his hotel.  Further, Leventis believes he murdered Jaco Kapantzi during the war.  With a “community of fate” the two detectives, one Greek, one German are forced to reach an accommodation and work with each other.

Kerr introduces an interesting group of characters, some true historical figures, some fictional; especially Alzheimer and Dietrich; Achilles Garpolis, a Munich RE employee in Greece who assists Gunther; Witzel who turned out to be a rather sour German; Elli Panatoniou, a government ministry lawyer, communist, and an enigma to Gunther; the lady from H’Mossad, known as the “bandit queen,” or Rahel Eshkenazi, a  Auschwitz survivor; and Lt. Leventis whose sense of morality is quite striking and believes that Gunther should help atone for German sins from WWII by working with him.  Gunther’s dilemma is that he is trying to stay away from his Nazi past because he was living under a false identity.

Kerr’s latest takes a number of twists and turns that will keep the reader fully engrossed.  Kerr proposes a number of possible plot lines as Gunther tries to determine the motives for the murders he has discovered.  From Jews seeking revenge from the Holocaust to the possibility that Greek and Egyptian antiquities were being sold to raise money for Egyptian President Gamal Nasser to purchase weapons to be used against Israel.  His entertaining approach to crime solving is on full display and this effort is one of his best.  As an avid reader of the Bernie Gunther series his death will deprive myself and his readers many hours of enjoyment.  There is one consolation, in that a fourteenth iteration is due out next year, and if it continues were the current story leaves off, it should be fascinating.

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(Nazis in front of the Parthenon during WWII)

THE EMPEROR’S TOMB by Steve Berry

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(Terracotta Warrior Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di)

Steve Berry’s sixth novel in his remarkable Cotton Malone series, THE EMPEROR’S TOMB has tremendous resonance in today’s geopolitical world.  For example, Chinese leader XI JinPing recently had his presidency extended for life.  Second, is the US, China, and Russian competition for energy resources and control of new land masses.  Third, the world geostrategic balance is being reoriented through the use of new technologies.  All of these contemporary issues are played out throughout Berry’s novel that opens with Malone, the former US Justice Department Special Agent for the Magellen Billet receiving a computer message from longtime ally, and possible romantic interest Cassiopeia Vitt, that she is in dire trouble and needs his help.  Since in the past she has rescued him, for Malone it was an easy decision to leave his retirement occupation as bookstore owner in Copenhagen to fly off and help her in Belgium and China.

Berry weaves an interesting web whereby Vitt has been asked by a Russian geochemist who lives in China, Lev Sokolov for assistance as his four year old son has been kidnapped.  Sokolov had left Russia years before against the wishes of Moscow to marry a Chinese national.  Sokolov fears his son has been stolen because of China’s one child policy as males are in such demand.  As you will see this is not the reason for the kidnapping, and Vitt immediately becomes involved in a Chinese plot to secure energy independence, and Beijing’s role in the world.  It seems that Sokolov was an expert in abiotic oil- oil that is not a fossil fuel but emanates from deep in the ground and as the ability to regenerate itself, making its supply infinite- “a primordial material the earth forms and excretes on a continual basis.”

Berry creates a number of fascinating characters to carry out his plot as he integrates Chinese history and philosophy to educate his reader.  Karl Tang is the Chinese Minister of Science and Technology and First Vice President of the People’s Republic of China, and second in power to the president.  Tang believes in the ancient authoritarian legalist philosophy pursued by Chinese Emperors for centuries and reinstituted by Mao Zedong.  Tang believes that any further Chinese democratization is against its cultural past.  Tang’s competition to succeed the aging Chinese president is Ni Yong who heads the Central Commission for Discipline of the People’s Republic.  Ni is a practitioner of Confucian values and is the antithesis of Tang when it comes to the exercise of power domestically and abroad.  Another interesting creation is Pau Wen, a rich Chinese emigre who left China, and was the former advisor to Mao, now living in Belgium.  It appears Wen is a leading member of the Brotherhood of the Ba, an organization of powerful eunuchs, who have historically influenced Chinese government policy through advice to the Emperor, a movement that seems allied with Tang.  For the United States the evolution of this power struggle is extremely important because should China gain total energy independence through abiotic oil, and Tang assumes the Chinese presidency, it would pursue an increasingly aggressive foreign policy.

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(Mao Zedong)

The issue of achieving unfettered access to energy sources is a key to Tang’s realpolitik as it is today in China. China imports 60% of its oil from Africa, Latin America, and Russia as a means of avoiding becoming dependent on Mideast oil which is such a volatile source.  To this point China has survived by trading technology and financial aid to corrupted regimes to secure its energy needs.  If they were able to achieve energy self-sufficiency, Tang would press domination in the South China Sea, seize Taiwan and possibly Korea, and expand influence throughout South East Asia.  A key component to the plotline is the role of the tombs that house the Terra Cotta warriors in Shaanxi, China.  It seems that all the major characters have an interest in exploring a newly discovered area of the tomb and what may lay hidden could be the key to the future world balance of power.

Berry’s periodic summary of Chinese history is extremely important to the overall story providing context for events.  Berry has the ability to weave aspects of Chinese philosophy and technological advancement, i.e., discovery of salt, drilling techniques, oil, natural gas from previous centuries and how they impact events in the novel.  Berry’s mantra as in all of his books is to blend real historical events and discoveries with a counterfactual plot that approaches contemporary realism, this mantra is firmly met in THE EMPEROR’S TOMB.  As in all of his “Malone” novels, Berry offers a historical essay at the conclusion of the novel depicting what is actual history, and what is fiction in the author’s presentation – a valuable asset for the reader.

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(Confucius)

Other characters who emerge important are Viktor Thomas, a Russian operative who seems to work for all sides in the novel at one time or another.  Ivan, a Russian agent, bent on stopping China’s power play, Jin Zhao, a geochemist who knew too much about abiotic oil and Tang’s plans.  Stephanie Nell, Malone’s old boss at the Magellen Billet appears throughout the plot as do Malone’s many skills that he nurtured throughout his career.  Malone is very distrustful of most individuals in the novel who all seem to have their own agendas which usually do not correspond with his.  What is different about this current rendition of the Malone saga is that there is a vocalization of his relationship with Vitt as each come to realize the importance of their feelings for each other.

THE EMPEROR’S TOMB contains the usual suspense, country hopping, historical education for the reader, strong plot development, and interesting characters that one comes to expect from a Berry novel.  At times the dialogue and background can become a bit long winded, but overall Berry has another success on his hand. If you are interested in continuing with the Malone saga, the next book in the series is the JEFFERSON KEY.

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SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL by Kent Anderson

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The Vietnam War which ended close to forty-four years ago seems to recede further and further into our collective memory as time moves on.  Over time this movement has been slowed by the appearance of numerous novels that depict the horrors of the war and its tortuous effect on those who fought in southeast Asia, and the civilians who suffered and died.  The best of these novels, many of which were written by former soldiers include; Philip Caputo’s A RUMOR OF WAR, Stephen Wright’s MEDITATIONS IN GREEN, Tim O’Brien’s THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, and more recently, Karl Marlantes’ MATTERHORN.  All of these works depict the insanity of war and the outright lies associated with America’s experience in Vietnam.  In considering this genre, Kent Anderson’s SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL should be added to the list as it witnesses the cruelty, duplicity, and disgust that soldiers experienced when they were supposedly fighting a war in defense of American national security.

From the outset, Anderson’s novel depicts the hypocrisy of the war as American troops get ready for a surprise presidential visit.  Further, he describes how American troops cross over into Laos to conduct a bomb assessment, a euphemism for a body count  after illegal B-52 strikes in a foreign country.  Anderson tells his story through the eyes of SGT Hanson, who enlisted in the army after three years of college, volunteered for Special Forces, completed a tour of duty in Vietnam, and then reenlisted for another tour when he could not readapt to civilian life.  Hanson is a fascinating character as he becomes a hardened combat veteran he continues to carry a book of Yeats’ poetry with him as he engages the enemy.

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(173rd Airborne)

The first quarter of the book introduces Hanson and his buddies and how they viewed their experience in Vietnam.  Anderson’s characters include, Hanson, the main protagonist; Quinn his buddy on both tours, a mean and violent individual who excels at gathering souvenirs from enemy bodies; Kitteridge, a senior supply NCO who built a profitable empire reallocating equipment away from their assigned destinations; Silver, a short and wiry individual who spoke fast and walked with a slight limp; Mr. Minh, a Montagnard tribal leader who studies of katha allowed him to make predictions that usually proved to be true; Lieutenant Andre, Hanson’s first field commander who enlisted while in law school; Warrant Officer Gierson, a pompous man from Texas who loved to hear his own voice, and lastly, the crazy SGT-MAJOR, who Hanson looked up to as a father figure and taught him how to stay alive.

One of the most important aspects of the book are Anderson’s observations about the war that comes across through the dialogue between characters.  One of the most haunting is how in America one witnesses children crying all the time, while in Vietnam, children never shed tears no matter how much horror they experience.  Another is how the Vietnamese try to Americanize themselves in order to please GIs and make a profit-by altering the looks of women making them appear more westernized, the type of music they choose, and the language they expressed. When GIs returned to the United States they were spat upon, cursed, and in general treated quite poorly, particularly Hanson who could not deal with this type of reception and decided he felt more comfortable and accepted in Vietnam.  What is very unsettling is the way Americans viewed their Vietnamese counterparts.  For men like Quinn, they were lazy and to be despised.  It reached the point that Americans only relied on themselves as they did not trust their Vietnamese allies to fight.  Further, they were aware of the hatred between the Montagnard tribesmen and the Vietnamese but saw the tribesmen as individuals who could be relied upon and they became true allies that could be trusted.

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An interesting aspect is the realization by American troops, Hanson, Quinn, and Silver in particular how it soon became clear that inflicting and overcoming pain, and the possession and disbursement of power were the keys to survival.  As Hanson experienced the war the real world made less and less sense to him, and the world of combat elevated his comfort level as he developed what he saw as a skill – the ability to kill, which reflected power.

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The issue of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is front and center in the novel.  Even before Hanson arrives in the US after his first tour there is evidence of PTSD as he hides a Russian pistol he had taken off an NVA body.  His rationalization is that for “eighteen months he never went anywhere without a weapon, he was not going to start now.”  Hanson comes to realize that he is always angry and makes one wonder if it is the war that “pisses him off” or is it something deeper.  Once Hanson’s emotional state is laid bare Anderson returns to why Hanson enlisted in the first place and what it was it like to join the military.  The author’s discussion of induction and basic training is standard US Army harassment, humiliation, and demeaning of people for fresh troops to lose their individual identity and become more of a unit. Anyone who has experienced this preparation for combat will not be surprised or possibly disturbed by what they read.  It still seems that all drill instructors must have gone to the same school of language and psychological training that still rings in my ears almost fifty years later.  The racism, hatred and lack of empathy are standard practice and drove one GI to try and commit suicide, but for Hanson it created a mindset on how he would survive.  He decided that he did not want to go to war with bullies, sadists, and cowards.  As a result, he underwent training for the Green Berets and extended his tour.

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Anderson’s novel presents a remarkable destruction of a person’s sense of self.  Hanson seemed to be a somewhat adjusted individual when he left college and joined the army.  As his military training and experiences evolved his personality began to deteriorate as he succumbs to the evil he witnessed, and his more empathetic traits receded into the background.  As Lt. Andre had stated the war held “no mistrials, no court of appeals, things are final.”  For Hanson his return to Vietnam for his second tour after his negative experience back home became his security blanket and it was reflected by his actions and comments.

The final episode Hanson experiences in Vietnam is right out of the films, Platoon and Apocalypse Now, reflecting the outright absurdity of war, and the callous way it was approached by the United States.  If that was Anderson’s message to his audience, he effectively transmits it.  The novel is a gripping look at Vietnam, its effect on those who fought it, and is a remarkable addition to those books that have come before it that have similar themes.

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