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Phoenix Mistress by Frank  Wadleigh

Phoenix Mistress

by Frank Wadleigh

Pub Date: April 17th, 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4917-6426-8
Publisher: iUniverse

In Wadleigh’s historical thriller, a civilian intelligence analyst in Vietnam is horrified when his covert CIA gig leads him to suspect unlawful arrests and torture of anti-war protestors.

A computer scientist is looking for adventure when he takes a job at a company under contract with the U.S. Army in 1969 Saigon. He’s initially revising a computer program that evaluates the government’s progress in the Vietnam War. But the CIA sends him into the field with the Phoenix program, which is designed to identify members of the Viet Cong Infrastructure who are behind terrorist incidents and assassinations. The analyst, however, has misgivings about his new employers. It seems they’ve been arresting protesting Vietnamese university students and possibly murdering others. His decision to send a memo in objection to the CIA’s program may put him in just as much danger as the protestors. Though the author stresses that his unnamed protagonist is fictional, much of the book reads like a memoir. Sections are told through the perspective of a cold observer, quoting everything from brochures to a training manual and listing local foods. The main character makes an impression; he’s incessantly sweating from the blistering heat, caught in downpours during the rainy season, and hearing Viet Cong explosives. The book’s latter half becomes a series of dated short scenes resembling journal entries. These intimate anecdotes, including a description of a lengthy and turbulent relationship with the narrator’s co-worker Ann, ultimately subsume the novel. Elements of the thriller, which involve the mysterious titular character and the protagonist’s chance to save students who’ve been jailed, are sidelined. But the potentially nefarious Phoenix program remains a threat, even if only implied by a newspaper article referencing a GI shooting and killing a student. And the analyst feasibly in the CIA’s cross hairs adds a dash of suspense until the unforgettable and appropriately unsettling ending.

A tug of war between a first-person account of Vietnam and an espionage thriller; inconsistent and oddly structured but well-written and undeniably riveting.