The New York Times and other elements of the mainstream media last winter
exhumed an old stereotype most of us thought had been long buried: the
mentally damaged war veteran who is a danger to himself and others.
The liberal cliché of the deranged vet -- a staple of Vietnam War era
pop culture -- made a comeback in not only journalism but also
popular fiction (or is that redundant in the case of the Times?).
But the canard didn't stay around long in the MSM. Since liberals tend to
begin or end every discussion of the Iraq War with a facile claim that "we
support the troops," it was child's play for conservative bloggers, think
tanks and columnists to jump all over this flase stereotype with both feet.
Books, however, have both a long-term production cycle and a shelf
life. That means they can't just disappear from the scene when no one salutes
the bad idea that has been run up the flagpole.
What's especially disappointing is that three of the
day's best thriller writers -- John T. Lescroart, T. Jefferson Parker and
James W. Hall -- jumped aboard this canard's bandwagon even though they've
been known for side-stepping PC conventions (or even turning them on
their heads) in the past.
John Lescroart's Betrayal (Dutton, $26.95)
is aptly named. While this bestselling author's track record when it comes to
logical plots is wildly uneven, his ambitious legal thrillers featuring attorney
Dismas Hardy, a former prosecutor, and Marine Vietnam War vet, generally
revolve around real humans wrestling with Big Questions in a complex and
Betrayal, however, is a simple-minded, contrived excuse to rail on
liberalism's new favorite straw boogeyman, Blackwater Security and similar
private security firms in particular-- not to mention "the moral rot that
festered in Iraq
and in the halls of power" in general.
Hardy is called to defend Evan Scholler, a National Guardsman accused of
murdering Ron Nolan, a private military contractor and ex-Navy SEAL.
Complicating Hardy's case is that the most logical suspect as the author of the
frame-up is the supposedly dead Nolan.
For anyone who's never seen the classic film Laura or any of its
countless imitators, this is a puzzler. Indeed, Nolan's frame job is
so clumsy it depends on FBI agents and federal prosecutors who haven't gotten
past Windows for Dummies.
We find out that Scholler is a naif who fell under Nolan's spell in the
chaos of Baghdad.
He is soon drinking on duty with Nolan, providing security for Nolan's
murderous missions and eventually leading his platoon into an ambush that only
Scholler -- barely --survives. While Scholler is recovering, Nolan steals his
girl, a ditzy antiwar school teacher, to boot.
This has all the subtlety of a Tokyo Rose broadcast — "Hey, G.I., who
are you fighting for while your girl back home is cheating on you?"
The real betrayal in this dismal Dismas tale is of Lescroart's reader base.
This odd novel feels like a paste job -- it's as if Lescroart had set out to
write a stand-alone book protesting the privatization of national security, but
his publisher would take this dull screed only if the author drafted his
signature characters into this miserable enterprise to generate a few
Lescroart's joining the antiwar chorus is especially puzzling because
one of his best books, The First Law, argues on a personal level for
In the afterword, Lescroart cites as his sources two fine books, David
Denello's Blood Stripes, an excellent unit history of the Marines
and Robert Pelton's Licensed to Kill, probably the best book so far
about modern private military contractors. In his "research,"
however, Lescroart learned the words but not the music. He may have gleaned
some technical details to lend an air of authenticity; but when I read those
books, I must have skimmed over the parts about careless, drunken soldiers
being led astray by sociopathic mercenaries.
On the other hand, James Hall's Hell's Bay (Minotaur,
$24.95) is mostly concerned with issues about corporations and the
environment more common to Florida-based crime novels. The novel starts out
promisingly, as a deluded female environmentalist kills an old lady CEO in cold
blood as she is on a canoe trip to reassess her company's development project's
effect on a river.
But it turns out the reason the female killer has deadly skills — and the
willingness to use them -- is she's an Iraq War vet. To be fair, Hall doesn't
hammer this point; the killer's grief over her son and husband's terminal
cancer, which she blames on environmental poisoning, is the catalyst that sends
her over the edge..
It's worth noting, however, that Hall has written a number of suspense
novels since 2001, and the first plot point concerning either of America's
current wars is in the context of the veteran on a rampage.
Hall's violent yarns about Thorn, a Florida
beach bum who reluctantly finds himself performing all sorts of derring-do, are
most often compared to the late John D. MacDonald's classic Travis McGee
series. In Hell's Bay, Hall again borrows from MacDonald, this time
using a plot that loosely resembles MacDonald's twice-filmed Cape Fear.
Of the three books reviewed here, Hell's Bay is the most effective as
a thriller. It's tightly constructed and features only a few unreasonable late
In T. Jefferson Parker's L.A. Outlaws (Dutton
$25.95), the protagonist is Deputy Charlie Hood, a cop who's a recent Iraq War
vet. Unlike Lescroart's Evan Scholler, Charlie is neither a sap nor a victim.
But if one were going to hold out hope that perhaps one thriller this spring
would feature a hero who refutes the media perception of a hopeless war, it
would be from the author of Little Saigon, which took up the cause of
anticommunist South Vietnamese expats in Southern
Alas, while Charlie isn't mentally damaged by the war, he is hiding a secret
— the fact that he neglected to prosecute an atrocity committed by a small
group of U.S. troops when he
served as an Army investigator in Iraq. Now, the most innocent of the
rifle company involved is wanting to come clean, even though his comrades set
him up to take the blame.
Granted, L.A. Outlaws in hardly a political statement on Iraq or any
other war. Parker treats the subject of the cover-up in much the same way as he
would a subplot about cops covering up for one of their own. Again, it's just
disappointing that Parker -- who even treated the climate change issue with
skepticism in a recent novel -- does not buck any trends this time.
The main plot of Outlaws features the great-great-grandaughter of a
semi-infamous 19th century outlaw who specializes in flamboyant and nonviolent
stickups of fast-food joints. Calling herself Allison Murrietta, schoolteacher
Suzanne Jones has become a sort of Robin Hood in the local media.
But when Suzanne stumbles across a massacre from a drug deal gone wrong and
takes off with the money, it puts a machete-wielding Salvadoran killer on her
trail, along with Charlie who is investigating the murders. Improbably, Charlie
falls for Suzanne.
The real problem here is that L.A. Outlaws is just not a very good
book. Robert Crais dealt far more effectively with the cop/criminal romance
angle in The Two Minute Rule a couple of years ago. But you have to give
credit where it's due. It's been a dozen books since Parker wrote a
thriller that wasn't one of the year's best, so I guess he was due for a
It's also telling that none of these books has become a top seller for its
author; the novels, like last year's spate of anti-war movies, quickly sank out
of sight. In the early 1980s, Magnum P.I. was a smash hit
partly because it gathered a group of Vietnam vets together and let them
be unabashed heroes — and even dared to say their losing cause was just.
(Likewise, the pro-American action movie The Kingdom, whatever its
flaws, made more money kicking terrorist butt than all the movies bashing Bush
Magnum debuted six years after the last helicopter lifted off from
the Saigon Embassy roof. Here's hoping Iraq vets don't have to wait that
long to get their due in popular entertainment.