The author of Fields of Fire (not reviewed), one of the best Vietnam War novels ever, sends a fictional ex-Marine to contemporary Vietnam to hunt down a murderous deserter.
Webb, a former Marine and secretary of the Navy, offers a heartbreaking portrait of modern Vietnam in the character of Dzung, a highly skilled soldier who lost his family fighting the communists and now makes a paltry living as a Saigon bicycle cabbie: home is a miserable shack where he lives with his young wife and five children, one of whom is dying of an infectious disease. Dzung is a close friend of Brandon Condley’s, a former Marine who stayed in Southeast Asia after the war as a security consultant and freelance trouble-shooter for the CIA. Condley blows into Saigon with Hanson Muir, a pompous but well-meaning forensic anthropologist searching for the remains of American soldiers. When Dzung learns that the bones of Muir’s latest find are not those of the American deserter Theodore Deville, a homicidal turncoat Marine who liked to sever the hands of his victims and who led an ambush on Condley’s platoon during the war, he is forced by a member of the Vietnamese security to begin training as an assassin. Condley is sure that Deville is still alive, and he uses his almost too cordial friendship with retired Communist Intelligence operative Colonel Pham (Pham’s daughter, Van, has a crush on Condley) to dig up clues (and another body) in a forbidding hilltop village; a Soviet observer’s seedy Moscow apartment; and in some sleazy Bangkok dives, where Deville might be working as a drug smuggler with the Vietnamese Communist regime. Meanwhile, Dzung wonders whether he’ll be able to kill his best friend Condley when the inevitable command comes.
Vividly atmospheric settings steal the show from Webb’s meandering story as Condley visits old soldiers from both sides of the conflict, united in their inexplicable love for Vietnam.