Saturday, April 18, 2015

Season's Revenge: A Christmas Mystery by Henry Kisor | LibraryThing

I first encountered Henry Kisor when I read his terrific book on the California Zephyr, traveling as a deaf man (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/37815095). For years he was the book editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, and I once invited him to come speak at my college to discuss the difficulties faced by the hearing-impaired.  A delightful man.  I had no idea he had written a series of mysteries and was very pleased to see how good they are.  He has another book on learning to fly and make a cross-country flight as a hearing-impaired pilot.  Guy has guts.


Steve Martinez is a Lakota Sioux raised by white foster parents who grew up out east, went to Cornell, was an MP in the army, and then joined the Porcupine County sheriff’s department.  (Kisor has a cabin in the UP so the scenery is familiar - he waxes familiarly on the differences between city and country people.)  Porcupine County is in the UP (Upper Peninsula) where the seasons are simply “winter, winter, winter, and black flies.)


The local political bigwig, Paul Passoja, is found mauled by a bear after he went camping in the deep woods. The autopsy revealed early stages of Alzheimer’s and the man had been depressed recently so all signs pointed to an accidental death.  The bear that did it was caught so that seemed to end that.  But something just doesn’t seem right to Martinez  who had found bits of bacon grease on the man, an accomplished woodsman, who knew better than to have any food near him in the tent in bear country.


Not a book for those who have to have a shooting, beating, or other violence on every page, this book develops the characters in a very nice way that has you liking them before you know it.  Good mystery, lots of interesting information, and a nice romance.


On a personal note, I’d like to point out that being a sheriff’s deputy in a large county such as we have in the Midwest or West is no small task.  The area to be covered is immense and often there might be only two deputies to cover many square miles.  The chief deputy of an Iowa county I know, remarked that at night, he was responsible for 2400 square miles (the county was roughly 60 miles by 40 miles.)  Try hustling to an accident at the far end of the county during a blizzard.


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Ripcord: Screaming Eagles Under Siege, Vietnam 1970 by Keith Nolan | LibraryThing

Ripcord is the eponymic analysis of the attack on the Screaming Eagles firebase installation in Vietnam in 1970. it exemplifies many of the structural problems with the way the war was conducted.  For example, the commander of the company assigned to Hill 805, Capt. Hewitt, was a young 25 year-old  who had been an ARVN advisor and reupped for a second tour, but he lacked real combat experience and that inexperience got him killed. Stringing a hammock on the second night on the hill, when it was almost a religious rule never to spend two nights in the same place, he was targeted almost immediately as the commander. The previous captain had been a real hard-ass, but one who had Korean war experience and who insisted on perfection in operations.  It kept him and his men alive. The six-month rule mandated that commanders only remained in the field for six months to give everyone a chance at field command and ultimate promotion.  It also got many soldiers killed.

The book doesn’t flinch at detailing many of the racial problems.  One incident involved a Sergeant Johnson who adamantly refused to take point despite orders to the contrary. Finally a Pfc. Utrecht just stormed up to the front and led the platoon.  He was killed shortly thereafter having failed to see a sign on the trail indicating possible ambush. Everyone was furious. “ ‘ Bob Utrecht had been well liked and everyone knew that what had happened was Johnson’s fault,’”said one of the soldiers. Utrecht’s body was hauled out the next day.  Johnson had been sent back with a medevac right after the incident. “The times being what they were, an ugly mood was made absolutely incendiary by the fact that Utrecht was white and Johnson black.  Judd remembered that ‘no one said anything directly, but it was understood that Johnson wasn’t going to survive the night, and someone had the smarts to send him to the rear.’ “

Despite constant patrolling by Lucas’s battalion to cut the infiltration routes to the heavily populated lowlands, the buildup had gone mostly unnoticed, there being too few troops and too much ground to be covered. Most significantly, the North Vietnamese had been able to fortify a dominant hill only a kilometer west of Ripcord. Once the battle was joined, the enemy shelled Ripcord from that vantage point, their log-reinforced bunkers withstanding the air assaults."  This Hill 1000 was to be the bane of the American troops.  Storming it repeatedly, the NVA seemed to have a never-ending supply of troops who would appear from tunnels behind the bunkers following the most intense bombardments and shelling. Colonel Lucas insisted on repeated attacks over the objections of his company commanders on the ground who begged for replacements and just a bit of rest time, but Lucas wanted to show his bosses some kind of progress and aggressiveness.   When Captain Wilcox, in the harshest terms, refused to take his men back up to hill (to certain death) mixing in some words about the futility of the war.  Lucas took the harshest implication, i.e., that he was a coward.  (Seems to me that the line between bravery and stupidity is a fine one.)  LT Campbell, when asked by Lucas what he would do (a colonel asking a LT?!) Campbell offered they should turn it over to the Air Force and just bomb the shit out of it every day, thereby neutralizing its position with regard to Ripcord. Wilcox was relieved of his command the next day.  

Campbell’s judgement (and he thought Lucas was one of the best battalion commanders was harsh. ““I hated Lucas for years for what he ordered us to do that day on Hill 1000,” he said. “I also spent years trying to blame Lucas for what happened, but, really, I was accountable, too. His order to assault across an open saddle in the face of direct fire without close-in gunship support was absolutely stupid—and I was stupid enough to order it carried out. I knew better. I knew that Lucas didn’t know what was happening on the ground because he had never spent a single day in the field with his troops. I didn’t have the moral courage to refuse the order, though. The result was that Hupp and Scott went to their deaths trying to carry out an attack that I knew didn’t have a chance in hell of succeeding. It was a needless sacrifice of brave men.” Campbell later wrote a letter to Lucas requesting transfer to a different battalion.

Campbell had additional comments with regard to the much lauded use of helicopters: “The helicopter was the worst thing that ever happened to leadership,” Campbell added. “The troops didn’t hate the gooks. They hated the commanders flying around in their charlie-charlie birds giving orders without a clue as to what it was like on the ground. You need to be on the ground. You can’t lead men into combat and expect them to have loyalty towards you if they never see you. That’s why there was so much bitterness about Lucas among the troops. He was never there with a word of encouragement or a pat on the back, and he definitely wasn’t where he needed to be when we went up Hill 1000.”  

The helicopters could be extremely vulnerable. While under attack, Colonel Lucas ordered in a Chinook with a sling load of large shells for the artillery. Against the recommendations of his Pathfinders, he told them to hover and unload at the spot closest to the bunkers and howitzers presumably so the soldiers wouldn’t have to hump the shells, each weighing about 97 pounds, as far.  Unfortunately it was also in the line of fire from a .51 NVA machine gun.  The chopper was hit, caught fire and crashed in a scene that was worse than Dante could ever have imagined.  The description of the pilot pinned under the machine getting burned to death as aviation fuel washed over him would give anyone nightmares.  Then the shells in the load began to cook off and soon they were running and trying to hide from their own exploding shells.  People getting killed and wounded all over.  Meanwhile the NVA weren’t about to let the opportunity slip by.

One policy that made life difficult for the troops was body count.  Often they were sent back into battle zones to locate graves or dead enemy soldiers, anything that the command levels could use to create a positive kill ratio that would help to justify American dead and the enormous amount of ammunition and materiel that was expended to gain ground which was inevitably relinquished making body counts the only measure of success.  That affected the way the soldiers thought:  “ Captain Wilcox was of the same mind as the grunts in his new company, to include Rodney Moore, who would remark, “The commanders wanted body count, but we really didn’t care if we killed anybody or not. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing there. We fought so we could get everybody home alive.”
 
There was one very telling quote from a company commander explaining why the NVA continued to fight on and on while often the U.S. troops would back off rather than take heavier casualties: “They were willing to die for their country; we were not willing to die for their country.”

Lots more that could be said, but this review is already too long. Nolan does an amazing job of synthesizing hundreds of interviews to portray a detailed picture of fighting from the grunts’ viewpoint while not losing sight of the larger strategic picture.

And finally, I can’t help but record a comment from one of the participants who wrote a review on Amazon, Benjamin Harrison: “As the brigade commander during the siege of Ripcord, Keith and I had dozens of interchanges. It is common knowledge that retired general officers can recall with precise clarity the details of events that never happened. Nolan's rule that "facts" must be verified by at least three sources probably explains why some of my input to an early draft did not make the final publication. My long-winded point is that you do not have the "whole story" of Ripcord, but what you do have in this superb book is true and accurate.”

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Silken Prey: A Lucas Davenport Novel by John Sandford | LibraryThing

Sandford is in top form in this excellent audiobook read by Richard Ferrone.  Lucas is asked by the governor to look into allegations that the Republican Senator has been set up.  Kiddie porn was found on his campaign computer by a volunteer, and the governor, who has known Porter Smalls all his life, is sure he’s innocent.  He’s worried some zealous advocate from his own party might be responsible for having set up Smalls and if that came out, the political backlash could hurt him as well as Smalls.  The problem is that an inconclusive investigation isn’t good enough.  The mere whisper of suspicion that someone might be involved with kiddie porn is more than enough to sink someone’s life, and not just politically.

Taryn Grant, Smalls opponent in the upcoming senatorial election, is smart, beautiful, rich, and amoral, willing to do just about anything to win the seat.  She has dogs, both human and canine, willing to help her get there. But how could the kiddie porn have come from the Minneapolis Police’s evidentiary file on to Smalls’ office computer?

Lucas calls in favors from a variety of sources and characters from his other series all appear: Flowers, Kidd, and Loren

Some reviewers have said Sandford’s political views are too obvious in this book. Well, if Sandford's political views are that he hates politicians then I would agree. It's certainly impossible to discern any other political leaning as each of the main characters: Taryn (the narcissistic and evil Democrat, the governor (the manipulating self-interested politician), and Smalls (the womanizing Republican) are all distinctly unlikeable, and the ending is quite cynical..  I think it's one of Sandford's better books.

Not a mystery, though.  The bad guys motivations and actions are laid out right from the start, and Lucas, for once, does some hard investigating.

23rd in the Davenport series.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Cold Kiss by John Rector | LibraryThing

Audiobook. A good thriller must have several things going for it to keep me entertained: I must care about one or more of the characters; I have to want to find out what happens in the end; and it has to be reasonably well written. If the characters are relatively normal people, i.e., don’t have the superhuman powers so common in some thrillers today, that's a plus. My crap-detector swings into overdrive when our hero manages to take on twelve bad guys with one six-shooter and gets all of them. Sometimes two criteria out of three works; sometimes not. Cold Kiss meets all three.

This book reminded me so much of A Simple Plan (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/39543741) by Scott Smith. Nate and his fiancĂ© find themselves driving into a blizzard on their way to Reno to get married. At a rest stop they meet a man, obviously ill, who offers them $500 to drive him there also as his car needs some work. They agree but as the snow worsens they are forced to stop at a motel in the middle of nowhere with heat but no power.  They discover the man has been shot, and, he has a suitcase full of money. One thing leads to another and soon the man is dead, the motel’s handyman is suspicious, the snow is worsening, and everyone is getting greedy.

Paul Michael Garcia reads with a laconic, slow tempo that drives the tension effectively.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Vanishing Game by William Boyd | LibraryThing

Alec Dunbar is an actor.  Called to a producer’s office one afternoon, he discovers the part was really for a woman, but on the way out he is offered £1,000 by a woman to drive a flask of what appears to be water far into Scotland to a church.  It supposedly contains water from the River Jordan to be used at a ceremony.  Having few funds, Dunbar accepts.  His car in disrepair he accepts the offer of the woman’s Land Rover.  (Weirdly, this novella was sponsored by Land Rover and given away for free download. It's sprinkled with color photographs.)  What makes the short read amusing is that Dunbar uses knowledge acquired by acting in films to help himself get out from under the bad guys who invariably want what’s in the flask.

It’s a painless way to spend an hour or so and the cost was right.


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