One Degree by Gus Kappler

Gus Kappler’s One Degree: An Historical Medical Mystery (BookBaby, 262 pp. $13.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a mix of fact and fiction with a strong Vietnam War theme. Dr. Kappler did a tour of duty in the Vietnam War as an Army trauma surgeon at the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai in 1970-71.

In this novel, after Pfc. Richard Burrows is wounded, he is treated at a field hospital in Saigon, then medevaced to Japan, and later sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. After a few months at Walter Reed Burrows seems to be improving, but then suddenly takes a turn for the worse and is in danger of losing both his legs. He then dies of cardiac arrest. When he does, one of his doctors wonders, “What did we miss?”

A lab technician at Walter Reed, Matt Rogowicz, blames himself for Burrows’ post-op death because of what happened a few weeks earlier. Rogowicz had examined a slide of Burrows’ blood and detected an abnormality in a white cell. But there were no reports in the medical literature about such a distortion in infection-fighting white blood cells. Rogowicz could not convince his superiors that this was something that required further investigation and then his patient died.

After leaving the military, Rogowicz becomes obsessed with the tragedy and decides to spend however long it takes to get to the bottom of it. He learns about two more seemingly similar deaths and cover-ups of the circumstances surrounding the deaths. He blames himself even more, and soon exhibits PTSD symptoms, as do others he interviews. There’s a question of whether exposure to Agent Orange could be an issue, and there is a rumor that a Vietnamese worker may have placed a Russian-made toxin in the food in American mess halls.

Then China comes into the picture and things really pick up. There’s a possible connection to Big Pharma, a pharmaceutical conglomerate that had, Kappler writes, “allied with giants in other industries to create and sustain a consortium of players that, in the real sense of the word, ruled the world economically and politically.” This “ruling class” decided to try to control the most powerful man in the world and began grooming a corrupt U.S. senator for a run at the U.S. presidency.

As Rogowicz’s mission drags on for years, it becomes a life-changing experience. He’s not going to stop until he gets this particular monkey off his back. He joins with a handful of other Vietnam War veterans who bring in others who have experience with the mystery disease.

Dr. Kappler, fourth from left, with other 85th Evac surgeons in Chu Lai

Kappler’s dialogue does not come off as natural. He often uses what his characters say as a way of providing information for the reader as characters spit out facts. The brief section of the book that takes place in Vietnam includes several tropes. The VC, for example, turn Claymore mines around to face the GIs; there is a “newbie” First Lieutenant; and pilots survive “several crashes.”

Overall, though, the medical mystery part of this hybrid novel kept me engaged.

Kappler’s website is guskappler.com

–Bill McCloud

Club Saigon by Martin Robert Grossman

Martin Robert Grossman’s Club Saigon (Koehler Books, 412 pp. $30.94, hardcover; $21.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a brutally violent murder mystery set in Los Angeles nearly two decades after the end of the Vietnam War. The story line goes back and forth between late-sixties South Vietnam and early-nineties L.A. This is ingeniously represented by the fact that a bar in Pleiku and one in L.A. both share the name, Club Saigon.

The story begins in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam early 1968 when a Special Forces compound is overrun by forces of the North Vietnamese Army. Grossman—who served in the Green Berets himself—writes that six good men died on that night while back home “the hippies were burning the flag.”

The next thing we know it’s twenty-two years later and Jerry Andrews is a detective with the LAPD. He left the Army after three tours in the Vietnam War and is now basically killing time while he waits for his retirement in three years.

He’s investigating the murder of a Vietnamese man in an alley in Little Saigon, a one-square mile area in the City of Angels. One of the dead man’s his ears had been removed by his assailant. That bit of information causes Andrews to recall an incident from his time in Nam.

Andrews lives in a one-room efficiency apartment. His “last wife” had left him, he hasn’t attended church in over ten years, and he spends a great deal of his time at a cop bar called 44 Magnum. Sometimes he has nightmares based on his combat experiences in the Ia Drang Valley. He also suffers from migraine headaches, which are coming more frequently and more painfully.

Additional dead bodies begin showing up in the alleys of Little Saigon. All Vietnamese, each missing an ear. Andrews somehow doesn’t consider the possibility that there’s a serial killer on the loose until after the sixth death. This is also a guy who seems surprised to walk into a men’s room in a bar and notice that it “smelled like piss.”

As he continues his investigation, Andrews comes across evidence that could involve a few of his Special Forces buddies—guys he’s had no contact with since the war. Then one of them becomes his main suspect. There’s a problem though: the man has been dead for years.

Martin Robert Grossman

Andrews and his buddies don’t seem to be a very enlightened bunch. They’ve apparently always harbored prejudice against Vietnamese. As Andrews puts it: he’s still “slightly racist when it came to Vietnamese.”

During the war Andrews and company spoke of “ARVN assholes” and “fucking farmers,” and were known to urinate on dead enermy bodies. More than twenty years later they wonder why Vietnamese refugees in America can’t “learn proper English,” and think of them as people who typically “eat dog meat.”

Grossman’s novel explores some interesting concepts such as astral projection, dreamscapes, shapeshifters, and “counting coup.” As brutally told as this story is, it’s light reading, falling into the area of testosterone-driven revenge fantasy.

Grossman’s website is martinrobertgrossman.com

–Bill McCloud

Destiny Returns by Douglas Volk

Destiny Returns (Danjon Press, 415 pp. $14.99, paperback; $3.99, Kindle) is the third novel in The Morpheus Series by Douglas Volk. These books get under my skin and find a home in the part of my brain that responds to terror. Volk is a very seductive storyteller.

This time we’re dealing with kinky sex, blackmail, fraud, embezzlement, and contract murder. All that is held together by The Curse, which we first encounter at the beginning of the first book in this series,The Morpheus Conspiracy. The Curse comes about following a mysterious, brutal, incident that took place in South Vietnam involving an American soldier and Vietnamese civilians in late 1970. Volk describes it vividly in The Morpheus Conspiracy, and I’ve never been able to get out of my head. The Curse expresses itself through Somnambulistic Telepathy, which gives people the ability to travel into other people’s dreams and carry out acts of violence against them.

This book begins twenty years after the previous one, The Surgeon’s Curse ended. It’s 2006 and Chicago is dealing with of murders, most of them involving street gangs. Charlotte “Charly” Becker has been a cop for five years, but is a rookie detective assigned to homicide, a department known as “the flying shit storm.” Her father is retired from the same department and had a reputation as a brilliant detective.

The first case she’s assigned to take the lead on involves the murder of a dominatrix, apparently at the hand of a professional gunman. But, of course, nothing’s ever as simply as it seems. Hoyt Rogers, one of the main partners in a large law firm and a long-time city councilman—is a client of the murdered woman. Charly Becker finds out he has serious money troubles. Not to mention being the brother of a notorious mass murderer known as The Surgeon.

As Rogers’ troubles worsen, his appearance goes through big changes, his personal hygiene goes downhill, as his mental state deteriorates. It seems The Curse is back and the horror is about to begin all over again. At the same time, Detective Becker has to deal with pressure from the department to solve the murder, along with political complications because of Rogers’ position with the city, and a reporter who keeps pestering her for details about the case.

These books tell nightmarish tales. Horrible things keep happening. You think things can’t get worse, but then you turn the page and they do. I consider Volk to be a master of dialogue. It always rings true.

I encourage readers to start with the first book in the series and read your way through. That will give you a better sense of the over-all vibe that’s going on here—the malevolence that underlies everything.

This book is popular entertainment, one that can help us get through these stressful pandemic days.

–Bill McCloud

The author’s website is https://www.themorpheusseries.com/

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

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Chris Bohjalian writes best-selling thrillers—lots of them. His twenty-first and latest, The Red Lotus (Doubleday, 400 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle, $24.50, audiobook), has a strong Vietnam War theme.

One main character—an NYC private investigator and former cop—served in the trenches in the war. One minor character, an upper-crust guy (“Boston Brahmin, Patrician, old money”) served as an Army lifeguard in country. The uncle of one of the main characters died in combat in the war. Agent Orange and its effects on humans and animals—mainly rats—comes up periodically. And a fair amount of the action takes place in Vietnam, albeit in the present day

Rats are at the center of this fast-moving novel. So is the Plague. So is a sociopath who enjoys torturing and murdering people. So is Bohjalian’s fondness for filling the book with in-your-face, clinical descriptions of fatal illnesses and serious medical conditions, along with their medical treatments. The main character, Alexis, a millennial ER doctor, has a self-cutting addiction. Bohjalian fills us in on the razor-blade specifics of that malady, as well as all manner of emergency injuries and illnesses that Alexis treats on the job.

That is, when she isn’t trying to spearhead the investigation into the mysterious death of Austin, her boyfriend. He died violently in Vietnam, purportedly run over by a car during a solo excursion while the young couple was enjoying a biking vacation there.

Alexis discovers that Austin had lied to her and everyone else about why he choose Vietnam for this biking adventure. He claimed he wanted to see the place where his dad—the lifeguard—had been wounded and his uncle had been killed. Turns out his rear-echelon father had been injured in a golf cart accident at Long Binh Post and his uncle died in another part of Vietnam.

Those revelations set in motion a plot that moves back and forth between Vietnam and New York City. The tale includes a smart Vietnamese detective, the dedicated American Nam vet PI, an edgy NYC hospital administrator, and an array of bad guys and gals—and rats.

The sociopath is a rat aficionado. He’s also a maniac who cooks up a dastardly scheme involving a unique biological weapon: rats injected with a new form of the Plague that does not respond to antibiotics. Austin, a clean-cut guy who raises money for the hospital where Alexis works, gets involved in the scheme and pays for it with his life. The plot picks up steam as the hunt for Austin’s killer (and the real reason he went to Vietnam) meshes with the main bad guy’s plan to unleash ultra-killer rats on the world. Things zoom to a blood-drenched climax in New York City.

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Chris Bohjalian

Along the way, Bohjalian gets in a bit of Vietnam War support troop bashing at the expense of Austin’s Army lifeguard dad. Rear-echeloners were “guys playing basketball and sitting around getting tan at the swimming pools,” the Vietnamese cop explains to Alexis. “Plus the tennis courts. The softballs fields. The libraries. The weight rooms. The nightclubs.”

Who knew?

If you’re up for delving into the fictional ramifications of evildoers unleashing the Plague on the world as we go through a real pandemic, this could very well be the book for you.

The author’s website is chrisbohjalian.com

–Marc Leepson

Chances Are… by Richard Russo

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Richard Russo, a Vietnam War generation (he turned 70 last summer) literary lion, is best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Empire Falls, and for Nobody’s Fool, both of which became HBO miniseries. I thought those books were great, but my favorite Russo novel is Straight Man (1997), a funny, cleverly written tale told in the voice of an English professor at a small state college in Pennsylvania as he roars through a mid-life crisis from hell.

It appeared that Russo’s latest novel, Chances Are… (Knopf, 305 pp., $26.95), which came out in July last year, had a strong Vietnam War theme. For one thing, Russo dedicated the book to “those whose names are on the wall” (more on that later). Also: The plot follows three Baby Boomer college buddies from the time they watch the first draft lottery in December 1969, to sometime in the recent past when they’re 66 years old and have a reunion in Martha’s Vineyard.

The draft and what the guys did about it pops up intermittently. Mickey, the rock musician, gets a low number, and is drafted. Teddy, the sensitive guy who suffers from “spells” (whatever that is), gets a get-out-of-jail-free high number. Lincoln, the one carrying heavy dominating-father baggage, is in between. Russo tells us what happens to Mickey and Lincoln vis-à-vis the draft, and offers a line here and there about the war, but that’s about it for the book’s Vietnam War component.

We have yet to see a great literary treatment of “The Sixties,” and I had hoped Russo might come through in this book. But there is no Sixties literary magic here. With only a hint of the wit, great wordplay, and creative story-telling in his best fiction, Russo offers up a tepid tale of four decades of three nothing-burger guys dealing with family, female, financial, health, and mental problems. Are you yawning yet?

Russo embeds a mystery into the tale: what became of Jacy, a wild young woman who palled around with the three buddies, all of whom were, as one says, “head over heels in love” with her. However, none of the guys—well, no plot spoilers here. After learning about Jacy’s horrid home life and the slings and arrows of her engagement to a bland preppie, we wade through a giant red herring until all is revealed in the end.

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Richard Russo

Most of the critics liked the book. The main negative was that the female characters were shallowly developed. Not one review I read mentioned Russo’s almost constant use of clichés. We get Jacy, for example, not being able to “get the hang of it,” then “burst into tears.” Later, she “cried her heart out” after putting her fiancé on “an emotional roller coaster.” And then there’s Lincoln’s father looking “hale and hearty” and “full of his usual piss and vinegar.”

Russo, it appears, failed to heed that tried-and-true literary advice: Avoid clichés like the plague.

As for the dedication—to “those whose names are on the wall”—I kept waiting for its meaning to reveal itself. Finally, near the end, Mickey tells his buddies about the time he paid a visit to The Wall where he scanned “down the rows of names, section after section,” and realized he was “looking for the guy who died in my place.

–Marc Leepson

The Oath by Dennis Koller

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Dennis Koller’s The Oath (Pen Books, 336 pp. $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is an exciting and fast-moving mystery thriller. In November of 1966, Tom McGuire was shot down over North Vietnam and spent the next seven years as a prisoner of war, returning home in 1973 as part of the first group of POWS released.

In 2000 McGuire is a homicide detective in San Francisco when an award-winning columnist for the city’s largest newspaper, Ruth Wasserman, is murdered in an unusual manner. After being shot and killed at close-range, her arms were trussed behind her in a way that McGuire immediately realized was the manner used by the guards in that long-ago Hanoi prison.

McGuire soon recalls that Wasserman, while a writer for the Village Voice, along with a small group of female college students, had visited the Hanoi Hilton. While there, the women betrayed a handful of American prisoners who had slipped them scraps of paper with their Social Security numbers. Three of the men immediately paid the ultimate price for trying to get that info back to the U.S. government.

The investigation into the Wasserman murder soon uncovers the deaths of a few of the other women. All were found with their arms bound behind them. McGuire realizes the killer is likely a former POW now on a tour of murderous vengeance. Furthermore, it may be someone he knew back then. And why does the governor of California appear to be the next person on the list?

Ultimately, McGuire’s aggressive investigation leads to higher-ups in his department who then conspire to take him off the case. Unofficially, he continues and, with the help of a street informant, bulldozes his way through secret government hit squads and deadly Vietnamese gangs.

Koller pulls off a difficult task as he alternates chapters between those written in McGuire’s first-person voice, and third-person ones describing the unknown perpetrator known as “the man.”

Throughout the story the reader is forced to think about the point at which a person with antiwar views becomes a traitor. But Koller also makes you aware of the unintentional war-time bombing of civilian areas and to consider what constitutes an “immoral” military order. There’s the legacy of the My Lai massacre.

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Dennis Koller

The book is divided into sixty short chapters. Just past the half-way point the story begins racing, literally against the clock, toward a satisfying climax. Some might see the book as pulp-ish wish-fulfillment tale. I didn’t.

For me, The Oath worked well as a straightforward thriller. And it kept my interest throughout.

The author’s website is denniskoller.com

–Bill McCloud

 The Off-Islander by Peter Colt

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Peter Colt spent twenty-four years in the Army Reserves. During that time he served in Kosovo in 2000 and in Iraq in 2003 and 2008. Colt, who was born in 1973, got to know many Vietnam War veterans and Green Berets while serving in the Reserves. He grew up on Nantucket—the island referred to in the title of his new book, The Off-Islander (Kensington, 240 pp. $26, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle).

Colt’s first novel is more about the death of the lifelong friendship of Andy Roark, a P.I., and Danny Sullivan, a lawyer, than it is about anything else, which includes trying to find a missing person, the long-gone father of a client. Andy and Danny are refugees from Boston’s Southie, where they were raised. Danny is annoyed with Andy because he has not found a stable job, or a wife, kids, house, mortgage, or dog.

Andy’s Karmann Ghia needs a new clutch and he needs a job to get the money to fix it. So he takes the job and flies to San Francisco to meet with the client and hear what she has to say. The last time Andy was in San Francisco he had just come home from the Vietnam War and got stared at for his short hair and called a “baby killer” in a bar.

In the Army Andy did Recon work and came away from that experience with disdain for supply clerks, jerks, and bottle washers who seemed to later claim they’d served in the Special Forces. He was a Green Beret, just like the man in the song. He went out and found the enemy and killed him or helped him get killed by artillery or bombs. He and his fellow Green Berets trained small, hard, nut-brown Montagnards to kill, too.

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Peter Colt

Andy notes that he worked in a dangerous part of a dangerous, stupid part of the war where the enemy threw their best men at him and his fellow Green Berets, and put bounties on their heads. When Andy came home, he had a lot of trouble trying to be a normal person, going to college, and fitting in. It was chaos; whereas in the war, things made sense to him.

His search for the missing man, Charles Hammond, is confused and difficult and seems destined to fail, but Andy persists despite attempts on his life and a distinct lack of support from Danny Sullivan.

By the end of the book, Danny and Andy are no longer friends and the reader has been taken for a long, exciting ride in pursuit of the missing man.

We are told that this is not the last of the Andy Roark novels. I look forward to the next one.

The author’s website is peter-colt.com

–David Willson

 

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille

Nelson DeMille is a veteran of the Vietnam War, having served as an Army infantry platoon leader with 1st Cavalry Division. He also is the author of twenty novels, most of which are action thrillers, and most of which have been big bestsellers.  He was named 2015 ThrillerMaster of the Year by the International Thriller Writers organization.

DeMille’s latest, The Cuban Affair (Simon & Schuster, 464 pp., $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), more than lives up to those that preceded it. DeMille’s new hero is Daniel “Mac” MacCormick, a U. S. Army veteran who is using his hard-won military skills to run a fishing boat out of Key West. Mac spent five years as an Army infantry officer. He fought in Afghanistan, and was awarded a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. That service also came with a variety of eye-catching scars, and it left him with a weakness for adventure.

A beautiful young Cuban-American woman offers Mac a deal in which he can help her retrieve $60 million in cash and gold left behind in Castro’s Cuba for a small cut. This isn’t the first novel of this sort I’ve read, so I suspected that things might go wrong. How could it not when the co-conspirators have a map showing where the gold is hidden?

Spoiler alert: Things do go a bit wrong. And even though a jaundiced Vietnam War veteran is part of Mac’s team, some unanticipated bad things happen. John Wayne gets a mention—not in a good way—and well-worn expressions from the Vietnam War such as “Di Di Mau” pop up.

Nelson DeMille

The murder of seventeen American Vietnam War POWs who had been held captive in the Hanoi Hilton also figures in the plot. They ended up in Cuba only to be tortured and shot by the Castro regime in those bad old days. Their skulls were kept in a trunk, which Mac is responsible for returning to America.

I recommend this novel to all those who have been fans of DeMille’s thrillers for as many years as I have. Also to those who have somehow not intersected with this master thriller writer.

You have hours of purely pleasurable reading ahead of you.

—David Willson

 

Abandoned: MIA in Vietnam by Bill Yancey

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Bill Yancey’s Abandoned: MIA in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 294 pp., $12.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a thriller and a medical mystery. Yancey served in the U.S. Navy, including a 1967-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War, and has an M.D. degree from the Medical College of Virginia.

This is the first Vietnam War book I’ve read that name checks Donald Trump. It includes an autographed picture of Trump posed in front of a yellow Mustang wearing asymmetrical wide black racing stripes. We are told that Trump bought this Shelby for his daughter.

I found the book extremely complex and hard to follow at first, but once I got involved in the story, I did a lot better. The main character, Dr. Addison Wolfe, comes across the name of an old Navy buddy named Byrnes in a newspaper and is “flabbergasted to read an attempted murder occurred in his name.”

Byrnes may have committed suicide; he may have been a victim of foul play. Or he may be a serial killer. Wolfe manages to shake loose from his chronic depression and begins to investigate what happened. In the less than 300 pages, as Dr. Wolfe gets to the bottom of the mystery, I was never tempted to give up on the book. It held my attention, and the ending was satisfactory to me.

I learned a lot about service on Vietnam War-era aircraft carriers. What’s more Yancey provides a huge amount of information without it ever becoming boring or irritating. That is a gift.

Bill Yancey has a point of view about the war–in a nutshell: “The North Vietnamese won.” He also believes the war was not necessary. Neither of those opinions caused any problems with the novel’s story or plot.

At the end of the book Yancey writes that he hopes that present-day politicians and diplomats are not setting up the world “for more unnecessary wars in the future.” I hope he didn’t hear the latest news about President Trump and North Korea, Syria, and China.

—David Willson

Hyperventilated Underwater Blues by Bob Calverley

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Bob Calverley was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1967 and served a 1968-69 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Tay Ninh. His first novel, Purple Sunshine, which we reviewed on these pages, is set in Vietnam and back home. His unusual second novel, Hyperventilated Underwater Blues (Amazon Digital, 338 pp., $4.99, Kindle), is a murder mystery set entirely in the U.S.A. with a few mentions of the military and the Vietnam War.

The book’s hero is a guy named Rick Short. Rick happens to be short, but he is also a swimmer, which makes his height unimportant. The book is a mixture of fantasy and reality and it is difficult to figure where one stops and the other picks up.

This the first book in which I read that a tour in Vietnam could bring back childhood stuttering. At least, I think that was the claim.

“I stuttered when I was a kid, but I mostly got over it until I almost got killed by a rocket in ‘Nam,” a character says. “Killed a guy who was talking to me. Got hit in the head by a big piece of shrapnel when he was right in the middle of a sentence. All I got was a few pieces in my arm. Minor shit, but my stuttering came back. Worse than when I was a kid.”

A teen-aged girl swimmer is murdered, drowned on her 18th birthday. That’s what this book is about. If you are a fan of university swimming, the book will hold more interest for you. Much of the book takes place in or near an aquatic center, and that’s fine with me.

This isn’t the usual Vietnam War-influenced book populated by mosquitoes and leeches. In fact, the book gets nowhere near Vietnam. It’s a nice change of pace. Thanks go to Bob Calverley for that.

The author took up masters swimming when his knees gave out from running cross country, so he appreciates a change of pace. Most of us do.

As someone said, variety is the spice of life.  This book provides that needed variety.

The author’s website is bobcalverley.com

—David Willson