In this stellar second outing from Jurjevics (The Trudeau Vector, 2005) Erik Rider, Army CID special agent, flies to Vietnam’s Phu Bon on orders to investigate and disrupt a narcotics ring operating amid the legal and moral turpitude of the Vietnam conflict.
The Vietnamese army is understandably reluctant to engage their Viet Cong adversaries, let alone whoever is producing and smuggling out opium and marijuana with the help of indigenous tribes from the forbidding highlands and funneling profits to the communists, corrupt Vietnamese officials and possibly even an American civilian. Corruption and graft are rife, even in the ranks of the anti-corruption task force, so Rider and CIA cohort John Ruchevsky run missions sub rosa, uncovering a tangled net of influence, secret deals and kickback. Jurjevic’s ’Nam seethes with conflicted loyalties and the desperation of a nation and indigenous peoples still reeling from French imperialism suddenly forced to play host to a de facto war. To the enlisted men, Vietnam is paradise and hell; to the indigenous tribes like the Montagnards and to the Vietnamese, it’s a caldera of conflict that Jurjevics depicts with an anthropologist’s eye for customs and interrelationships. The drama is vast and intricate: missionaries, mercenaries, soldiers and aid workers with differing aims but united in their need to survive in the face of a highly organized enemy who, Rider discovers, knows the foe’s radio frequencies and has an uncanny precognition of airstrikes. Only when Ruchevsky and Rider have some success destroying an opium field do they realize the depths of their enemy’s infiltration into their ranks and ruthlessness when it comes to reprisals. And, because the war is not officially a war, their hands are further tied by diplomatic immunity and the U.S. government’s reluctance to compromise classified information or favorable relations with their allies. This tight-wound thriller drips with historical detail in all its cruelty, portraying with hard-boiled realism a conflict where neither side balked at intimidation and torture, and where human life was often just collateral.
It’s a thin line between murder and war in this splendid contribution to the body of fiction written about Vietnam.