It is tough to classify RED FLAGS by Juris Jurjevics. You might know Jurjevics as the author of THE TRUDEAU VECTOR, a stunning thriller published several years ago. He is arguably better known in the publishing world as the co-founder of the venerable Soho Press, which has been publishing mysteries and thrillers set in exotic locales, often by authors who are not household names in the United States, several years before the reading public became enthralled with women with exotic tattoos who kick over hornets’ nests and play with fire.
"If some elements of this story have been told before...it is still worth reading, both for Jurjevics’s innate ability as a storyteller and as a chronicler of history, warts and all."
RED FLAGS is also set in an exotic locale, namely Vietnam, in the 1960s, smack in the middle of what was officially known as the Vietnam Conflict. While written as fiction, it possesses more the tone and immediacy of a memoir, narrated in the first person voice of one who was there and never quite left.
Erik Rider is the voice of the novel. The story is bookended by Rider’s present-day encounter with Celeste Bennett, a woman who is seeking information about the father she never met. Colonel Roger Bennett was an officer with whom Rider briefly served during the Vietnam Conflict and who was killed in action. During the time of his service with Bennett, Rider was an Army cop on a repeat tour of duty. He met Bennett when he was assigned to a remote area of the Highlands Province known as Cheo Reo to determine the source of an income stream that was directly financing the North Vietnamese war effort.
Bennett is the top brass in Cheo Reo, an unsettling place to be, given that it is undermanned, outgunned, and constantly under the unspoken threat of being overrun by North Vietnamese at any time. The threat is double-downed by the fact that the army’s Vietnamese allies are unenthusiastic and infiltrated by the Vietcong. Intelligence leaks like a sieve; Rider no sooner lands in Cheo Reo than he finds that a bounty has been placed on his head by the Vietcong.
Rider’s ability to carry out his clandestine mission is hampered not only by the enemies in the field but also by unknown individuals ostensibly on his own side, who seem to have an interest in keeping the source of illicit income flowing. There are other complications for Rider as well, from just staying alive in an undermanned war zone to working under Bennett, a basically decent man who is faced with an understandable distraction that ultimately figures prominently in the book. By the time the wartime narration concludes, Rider and the world are forever changed. And by the time Rider’s story ends, Celeste Bennett’s life is changed as well.
Jurjevics does a brilliant job of navigating the reader through the complex relationships that existed among the U.S. troops, their South Vietnamese allies, and the Montagnard tribespeople in the area, with the Vietcong and North Vietnamese often playing one side off against another. If some elements of this story have been told before --- those who reached their majority during the Vietnam era or who served in country will see the conclusion coming --- it is still worth reading, both for Jurjevics’s innate ability as a storyteller and as a chronicler of history, warts and all. He puts the reader in the zone, combat and otherwise, a fact that makes RED FLAGS one of the more interesting reads of 2011.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 8, 2011