Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
About six months ago, SHOTS reviewed one of Martin Limon’s George Sueno novels set amongst US military police officers in South Korea in the 1970s, twenty years after the fighting stopped there. Juris Jurjevics’ RED FLAGS is set ten years earlier, in Vietnam in 1962, that time when in theory the US was not fighting but supporting the native government from attack from the north.
Featuring another MP, Erik Rider, who is given an acting (or more properly fake) rank of Captain, Jurjevics sends his protagonists into the Vietnamese highlands to investigate a dope smuggling racket which is profiting the Viet Cong (and that is for sure) and someone else (their identity not so sure). Things are not going to be easy, Rider learns that early when he asks to interview an informant and is told “Hold a séance”.
Flown to Cheo Reo, where the pilots sometimes slow the aircraft long enough on the airstrip to allow their passengers to step off, Rider finds himself in a fort from which the US advisers exit only when they are fully prepared, and where they have already hired local guards, because the South Vietnamese forces themselves are not to be trusted. In fact, life becomes a question of having to take some things on trust and meanwhile keeping a pistol close at hand because life, otherwise, would be so messy.
The local tribes people, Montagnards, have nothing to do with the Vietnamese proper and are at constant risk of having their homes and land expropriated by the government, but as their levels of hygiene and superstition mean that many do not make it into adulthood, that is not the only risk they face. Meanwhile, the secretive, invading communist forces are levying taxes, forced labour, and silence at the same time as are the government forces and the local army commanders who are simultaneously lining their own pockets.
There are also CIA undercover operatives at work, and some other westerners – priests, missionaries and medical workers, whose sympathies might lie elsewhere. Rider soon finds that if he is to perform his own investigations of the drug traffic he must help his host Colonel defend the camp from the constant attrition of sabotage and occasional all-out attack, and he both defends and investigates, meeting all sorts of characters, coming across ghastly lives and worse deaths.
Juris Jujevics himself served in Vietnam in the late ‘sixties, and gives an almost physical sense of the land up-country, along with all the problems that meant that the Americans would never win. He also throws us into a maelstrom of initials and acronyms – E-7s, NVA, MACV, LZ, VC, ARVN - which make me marvel that anyone on the ground had any understanding of what was going on. I opened Red Flags thinking that I was going to read a war novel and, perhaps because it is written with some posterior wisdom, found instead that I was reading that product of a good crime novel: the one that helps explain the time and the place and the reasons why great crimes can occur. A pity that it was not understood at the time.