Saigon Spring (Sonnyslope Press, 301 pp., $14.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War novel by Philip Derrick. Based on the dedication, Derrick was or is a teacher at a high school, and served in Korea during the Vietnam War. This is his second novel. The first is Facing the Dragon (2018).
Both books’ main character is James Peterson. Using the name Travis Nickles, Peterson returns from Vietnam in 1971. He is spit on and called a baby killer. However, four years later he finds himself back in the war and is there for communist takeover of South Vietnam in April 1975.
Nickels is surprised to learn he was sent back to Vietnam to be used as bait to get an enemy agent who has him as his target. The book’s big mystery is why him. The spy is called the Salamander.
The book intercuts between chapters on Nickels and on the Salamander whose story is told in flashbacks. He joined the Viet Cong young and rose rapidly because of his ruthlessness. During Tet ‘68, he was in charge of the lists of those to be executed in Hue. In 1975, his mission is to make sure no resistance movement keeps the fight going after South Vietnam falls.
And he adds a side mission to kill Nickels. Neither Nickels nor the reader know what the Salamander’s beef is. The American, even with a target on his back, moves around the doomed South Vietnamese capital. He gets involved with an orphanage. Inevitably, he and the Salamander cross paths.
I wish I had known about the first book before I read this one. Early in Saigon Spring, Nickels makes the intriguing comment that he had assumed a soldier’s identity to go to Vietnam and get revenge for his family. I was hooked, but it turns out the book never explains what happened. The first book does.
Derrick means for the novel to be a mystery, but it is not a standard one. He does not offer clues about why the Salamander is after Nickels. Instead, we get a big twist at the end. Most of the chapters spell out Nickels’ arc. They are told in first person. The Salamander chapters are more concise on his about his activities. He is a dastardly villain and as Derrick pushes the spit-opon-veteran trope, he also gives us the V.C.-were-cruel trope.
Derrick’s writing is fluid and the book has a good flow to it. The chapters are short and advance the narrative efficiently. Nickels is as appealing as the Salamander is loathsome. He is a good person who tries to help others in danger.
The book is a good tutorial on what it was like in Saigon in its last chaotic days as the capital of South Vietnam. Derrick interweaves facts with his fiction. Although this is not an action novel, Nickels does see some and even gets wounded. Most of the action is saved for the big reveal at the end.
It’s worth the wait, like the ending of a M. Night Shyamalan movie.
I recommend Saigon Spring for those interested in a mystery set in the last days of South Vietnam.