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 intelligent manner.
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 sales.
Lescroart's joining the antiwar chorus is especially puzzling because one of his best books, The First Law, argues on a personal level for pre-emptive self-defense.
In the afterword, Lescroart cites as his sources two fine books, David Denello's Blood Stripes, an excellent unit history of the Marines in Iraq, 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 twists.
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 California.
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 clinker.
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 put together.)
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.