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

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

111111111111111111111111111“The detective Harry Bosch helps a small police department track a serial rapist, while as a P.I. he aids a billionaire in search of a possible heir.”

That’s how The New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list describes the book that sits at number nine this week: Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Little, Brown, 394 pp., $29). That high-concept sentence is accurate, but doesn’t even begin to approach the detective-genre artistry Connelly once again exhibits in his nineteenth Harry Bosch cop procedural featuring the eponymous, not-quite-retired LAPD detective who served as a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War.

As he has in all the Bosch books-–beginning with The Black Echo in 1992—Connelly spins out a page-turner with vivid characters, a twisting plot, and evocative depictions of Harry’s home turf: the greater Los Angeles area. This book also has a significant Vietnam War theme in that the search for the billionaire’s “possible heir” leads Harry to a young Navy corpsman who died in a helicopter crash in 1970 in Vietnam. Harry’s service in the war comes up in the course of his investigation and he has a flashback or two to his two memorable tours of duty.

The book, in fact, opens with a flashback of sorts, to a very convincing evocation of an extraction of a group of Marines from a hot LZ. It doesn’t end well. Connelly then moves right into his two-pronged story in which Harry, who is working a volunteer investigator job for the little City of San Fernando, also takes on a free-lance assignment directly from an ailing, aging billionaire.

Both stories take unexpected twists. Harry runs into situations and roadblocks that he seems to face in every book. He has to deal with a cranky police supervisor who is out to get him. He tends to bend the rules to get what he needs to bring a bad person to justice. He uses his brain power and decades of experience to figure out the identity of an arch-evil bad guy (the serial rapist). He displays physical courage. He suffers emotionally when good cops (and civilians) are harmed. And he won’t rest until he brings the culprits to justice.

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Michael Connelly

It all adds up to a greatly entertaining read that stands with the best of the Bosch’s—and the best Bosch’s are terrific books.

There are two minor missteps relating to the Vietnam War that I will mention only because they will not ring true to Marines or to any Vietnam War veteran who took an R&R. Connelly more than once refers to Marines as “soldiers,” and calls R&R “leave.”

Here’s hoping the publisher fixes those little errors for future printings. If that happens, this will be a perfect Harry Bosch.

—Marc Leepson

Radiant Angel by Nelson DeMille

Nelson DeMille is one great storyteller. And he has been for three decades. The former Vietnam War 1st Cavalry Division lieutenant has been producing compelling, page-turning, plot-twisting mystery/thrillers with regularity since the Vietnam-War-themed Word of Honor came out in 1985. DeMille’s first-class story-telling ability has reaped dividends: His books always hit the best-seller lists.

So it’s no surprise that DeMille’s seventh John Corey thriller, Radiant Angel (Grand Central, 320 pp, $28), scored big with reviewers and the public when it came out last week. In it, wise-ass former FBI agent and former NYPD homicide detective Corey (now on the federal payroll in New York keeping an eye on foreign spies) gets enmeshed in a dastardly Russian scheme involving a Saudi prince, his yacht, and a small but potentially world-shattering nuclear device.

Much of the action takes place on Long Island—where DeMille grew up and still lives, and a place he often uses in his books. As usual, Nelson DeMille has the endearing but rule-breaking Corey stir up trouble involving his complicated personal life, his bosses, and some very bad guys. There’s also a big helping of the old ultra violence—just what you expect from a top-notch thriller that you’ll sure to see under many a beach umbrella this summer.

—Marc Leepson

Titanic’s Resurrected Secret–HEW by J. Robert DiFulgo

J. Robert Di Fulgo served in the United States Navy for three years during the Vietnam War. A retired teacher, he’s the author of The Invisible Moon, a Vietnam War novel. Titanic’s Resurrected Secret—HEW (iUniverse, 184 pp., $13.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is what DiFulgo calls a “Post-Titanic mystery novel.”

The hero is Alexander J. Dante, a historical and mystery novelist. Now retired, he decides to devote his time and energy to a solving a Titanic puzzle. The sinking of the Titanic left behind many puzzles, but the one that captures Dante (and takes him around the world) is the mystery of the identify of the crew member who is buried in grave number 223 at Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The story is told that this dead crew member stole a priceless object and got caught with it. So he forfeited his identity, and presumably his life. I recommend this book to those readers hungry for more literature dealing with the Titanic.

Some of the book, though, was hard going for me. When “lips curled enigmatically,” I found myself bogged down, wondering what enigmatically curled lips would look like. I failed to imagine them.

Those readers who enjoy a blending of history and fiction, and who respect meticulous research combined with literary license, should try this book.

The author’s website is http://jrobertdifulgo.com

—David Willson

Second Watch by J. A. Jance

Second Watch (William Morrow, 368 pp., $26.99,) is the twenty-first mystery in the best-selling J. P. Beaumont series written by Jance, a woman who lives in Seattle and Tucson and who grew up in Bisbee, Arizona.  All of these geographical connections figure significantly in this novel.

Jance is a member of the Vietnam Generation, but did not serve in the military. A seventeen-page section in the back of this novel details her connections to the Vietnam War. She graduated from Bisbee High School and notes that seven alums died in Vietnam, including one of the people she chose to appropriate for a character in this mystery novel. The afterword is as moving and involving as anything in this fine book.

Second Watch places J. P. Beaumont in a Seattle hospital getting and then recovering from double knee replacement surgery. The powerful pain drugs in Beaumont’s system awaken ghosts from the past, and the novel becomes almost Strindbergian with a dreamscape populated by figures that come to life in his guilt-ridden unconscious. This fits with Beaumont’s rearing in Ballard, the main bastion of Scandinavian culture in Seattle.  Two dead people from his past represent unfinished business that troubles and torments Beaumont.

J.A. Jance

LT Lenny D., his platoon leader in Vietnam, saved Beaumont’s life in a firefight. The Girl in the Barrel is a dead teenager, one of Beaumont’s early cases. Beaumont had promised her mother he would catch her killer, but he never had. The novel is structured around, and propelled by, this unfinished business and by Beaumont’s attempts to deal with it, even though he is laid up in the hospital and unable to walk.

This mystery novel has plenty of graft, corruption, and violence, and offers both a believable look at the Seattle Police Department and an engrossing and well-plotted mystery from a writer from whom we always expect solid excitement.

This is the best of the 21 Beaumonts I’ve read. The only weak part is that there is some muddle about Beaumont’s time and exploits in Vietnam.  I won’t go into the minutia of that, but if Jance wants a detailed list of Vietnam War mistakes in this book, I respectfully offer to meet with her as she lives not so far from me.

I am eager to read the next novel in this series and highly recommend this one to fans of Jance’s excellent work.

—David Willson

U-Tapao Royal Thai Naval Air Base Series—II and III by Leonard H. Le Blanc III

Leonard H. Le Blanc III served in the U. S. Air Force and the U. S. Navy. He has lived and worked in Thailand since 1991. It would appear that Le Blanc has used his experience and time in Thailand to create his military mystery detective series, U-Tapao Royal Thai Naval Base.

The two books in the series under review here–II and III: Airbase and Thailand (230 pp., each, paper, $5) are similar to Martin Limon’s series, which is set in Korea and is about two military policemen, George and Ernie. The story in Le Blanc’s books, we are told, “involves two young U.S. Air Force Security Police officers in their attempt to solve a massive Thai-operated theft ring on the base.”

Even though the two books are separately bound, they are really one story and one book, split into halves. Air Base is the first half, and Thailand is the second half of the story. Le Blanc does a fine job of setting the scene in Thailand on the air base named in the title.  He also does a good job of bringing to life on the page many Thai characters. There’s no two-man team of police, though. Mostly, the hero of the book, Lt. Legere, is on his own.

The books are strongest when dealing with the life and duties of Lt. Legere as a low-level Air Force officer stationed  in Thailand shortly after the American War in Vietnam ends. The best parts deal with the technical and personal aspects of that war winding down in Thailand where so much of the air war had been staged, especially as it related to the air bases.

A massive theft ring is operating on the air base, and our hero tries to get to the bottom of it, but he never really does. The truth comes out at the end of the second half of the story in Thailand, but Legere has little or nothing to do with the theft ring being broken. In fact, he has been long gone from Thailand, getting assigned to Ellsworth AFB in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Legere briefly stops off at home on his way from Thailand to Ellsworth, and interacts with his mother. She says little to him that is personal, but she does comment that she thinks he is hooked on heroin due to his gaunt look and loss of weight.

This scene totally rings true to me, as my mother made the same comment to me when I returned home from Vietnam. She made the comment for the same reasons. Legere chooses to spend little time with his mother before moving on with his life. I made the same choice. No bra-less hippie girl spat on either of us, but I would have preferred that to what my mother said.

The great strength of this two-volume novel, written in memoir form, is in this sort of detail. All of it is well-told and held this reader’s interest once I got past the first twenty-five pages or so, which jumped around chronologically—1971, 1975, 1981, 1979, and then, June 1975.

Once our hero arrives in Thailand, the book is fun to read and very well-organized. The book is arranged in small sections of a couple of pages each, and each of these sections has a clear title that sets the time and place for the reader. I liked that tactic. It helped me because I get easily confused.

I thought that about a hundred pages in, the investigative aspect of the book was getting underway, but I was fooled. The book continues with the daily life of the LT, and shows how things do not go well for him. We find out late in book two why most of the Air Force personnel go out of their way to make Legere’s life a living hell, but I will not spoil anything by telling more here.

The massive thievery on the air base is a strong leit-motif in this novel, but Legere never kicks ass or takes names the way the main characters in Martin Limon’s books set in Korea do. And that is fine with me. Le Blanc has written a different sort of book, the sort of book I actually like more than Limon’s books, as much as I admire Limon and his military thrillers.

I highly recommend these two books to anyone interested in what it was like to serve on an air base in Thailand in the mid-1970’s. I can’t imagine that any other author has done, or will do, a better or more enthralling job of showing this life than Le Blanc has.

—David Willson

Loved Honor More by Sharon Wildwind

Sharon Wildwind’s Loved Honor More (Five Star, 394 pp., $25.95) is the latest in a series of her Elizabeth Pepperhawk/Avivah Rosen mysteries. The author, who spent a year in Vietnam as an officer in the U. S. Army Nurse Corps, says she “can still remember exactly where she was the day that Saigon fell.” That’s not unusual for a Vietnam veteran. 

The title offers no clues that this is a Vietnam War-related mystery, but the colorful cover features dog tags, a blue and red edged airmail envelope, and a photograph of a helicopter against an orange sky. Those were enough clues for this student of paperback book covers to indicate that there is a story inside that deals with the Vietnam War.

Loved Honor More is a historical mystery. It takes place during the final weeks preceding the Fall of Saigon. The author tells us this is the final book in this series.

The heading of Chapter One informs us that it is “Sunday, 4 May 1975, 2200 hours, the Homestead, Madison County, North Carolina.” The first sentence begins: “Ex-Army nurse Elizabeth Pepperhawk burrowed deeper under her quilt.” The scene is set and the main character has been presented.

The author in her Army days

Soon the book is off and running at full speed. I have not read the previous books in this series, which puts me at a disadvantage. But I found the book immediately engrossing even though the characters were new to me, which is a tribute to the skill of the author.

In the first two chapters, ex-nurse Elizabeth Pepperhawk (Pepper) is informed of the murder by knife of her long-time lover, Colonel Darby Baxter, in a hallway in the U.S. Embassy in Saigon as that city is about to fall to the communists.  Also, Pepperhawk is blackmailed by her alleged friend, a Miss Fillmore, for $3 million for possession of Colonel Baxter’s  blue-grey eyed, infant daughter.

This reader was sucked in. Who killed Colonel Baxter and why? Who is the mother of the infant daughter and where is she?

Soon Miss Fillmore is found dead in Pepperhawk’s clinic. Pepper and her two friends, Avivah Rosen and Benny Kirkpatrick, decide that Colonel Baxter lied about the baby. He “loved honor more,” as the title says. But then, who are the baby’s parents?

Pepper and her two friends begin to try to solve the mystery closest to them: Who murdered Miss Fillmore?  Soon the Vietnam War invades Pepper’s homestead in North Carolina in the form of Vietnamese refugees whose presence upsets the local community of veterans.

I’ll tell no more of this story to avoid acting as a spoiler. I will say that I enjoyed the book, and will order the other books in the series that I somehow missed. I recommend that fans of Vietnam War-related mysteries make a point to get acquainted with this series featuring the intrepid and persistent Elizabeth Pepperhawk.

The author’s website is www.wildwindauthor.com

—David Willson