Place and time
Fifteen years ago I acquired a War Studies PhD. And one of the key takeaways from all the research that went into it was this: wars happen because of the societies they happen in. There’s some elemental clash fundamental to that place and time that means people turn to organised violence to resolve it. And while outsiders may provide the catalyst, may even get involved, they can’t provide the solution – that will lie within the warring society or societies.
Even so, it is easy for the outsiders to think the war is about them. And when that war generates fiction in the outsider culture, it often wears a label – ‘Vietnam novel’, ‘Iraq novel’ – that I tend to think of as a misnomer. For instance, most English-language fiction about the Vietnam War isn’t really about Vietnam at all; it’s about America, or colonialism, or war and what it does, with Vietnam as the stage on which the story is set. (James K. Webb’s ‘Fields of Fire’ is for my money the best of these, by a long way.) This holds true for most thrillers about the war too.
But not all. The recent deaths of Charles McCarry and Juris Jurevics reminded me how rich a genre novel about the Vietnam War can be. Charles McCarry was a former clandestine officer in the CIA who wrote complex, intelligent spy fiction; many – me included – think he is the best spy novelist America has produced. Juris Jurevics only had two novels published (as far as I am aware); he was much better known in the book world as one of the founders of Soho Press. Yet both wrote marvellous novels about Vietnam, that really are about Vietnam, informed by their own experience there – McCarry as a spy, and Jurevics as a Green Beret.
Jurevics’ ‘Red Flags’ is on the surface a straightforward military detective story; military policeman is sent to break up opium smuggling ring up country, treads on wrong toes, is endangered. But it is rooted in the culture of the Hmong, or Montagnard, people of Vietnam’s Highlands and the tension in their relationship with ethnic Vietnamese.
Similarly, McCarry’s ‘Tears of Autumn’ is on one level another entry in that strangely productive sub-genre, the JFK assassination novel. (Philip Kerr’s ‘One Shot’ and Stephen K. Hunter’s ‘The Third Bullet’ show what really classy writers can do with our prejudices about that defining event.) Yet it is also an examination of different Brahmin societies – US East Coast and Francophone Vietnamese – and what might happen when they meet.
Above all, in both books, the answer to the central riddle is rooted in the society that is being torn apart, not the outsider. And each novel is much richer and more satisfying as a result.