Saturday 15 July 2023

Play the Red Queen - A Vietnam War Crime Thriller

Saigon 1963 – multiple American military advisers and South Vietnamese Army officers are gunned down by the mysterious Red Queen, a deadly Vietnamese assassin. Two MP detectives, Ellsworth Miser and Clovis Robeson, are called in to investigate but find themselves stumbling into a mystery that's much deeper with international implications.

Play the Red Queen is a tight thriller novel by Juris Jurjevics, himself a Vietnam Veteran and the founder of Soho Press, an independent publisher. Told in first person, the novel reads very much like a gritty 80s buddy cop movie, though less like Lethal Weapon and more like the unsung thriller Off Limits, starring Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines. There is an air of dread and cynicism that pervades the writing, along with stifling heat.

The story begins with Miser and Robeson bent over the corpse of Major Furth, an American military adviser, shot dead by the Red Queen. Dressed in a traditional aoi dai and riding a scooter, she has a distinctive calling card. The theory is that she’s a Communist assassin, working on behalf of the Viet Cong. The trail eventually leads to a Vietnamese Communist defector from the Red Queen’s unit, who’s supposedly imprisoned. But when they inquire at the prison itself, the defector isn’t there.

More troubling are two rumors. The first is that the Red Queen plans on killing the “Old Fox,” who’s either South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem or US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge. The second rumor is that some South Vietnamese generals are plotting a coup against the Diem regime.

As they dig deeper, they uncover that Major Furth was investigating corruption regarding the US aid to South Vietnam. Everyone is getting their beaks wet with the unlimited cash flow, even the Viet Cong. The Communists don’t want it to stop, since US aid, weapons, and supplies, are also funding their guerilla war against Diem.

Miser and Robeson also track down the Red Queen’s origins, as the daughter of a religious sect, persecuted by the Diem regime. It should be noted that President Diem was a staunch Catholic, whose heavy-handed repression against religious minorities led to the infamous “burning Buddhist monk” protest. It appears that Diem’s authoritarianism not only killed the Red Queen’s family, including her brother but pushed her into the arms of the Communists. Miser and Robeson put the clues together as the clock ticks down to an explosive climax.

Play the Red Queen is a great thriller and one set in an overlooked era of the Vietnam War, that being just before major American involvement began in 1965. Check it out for a tight read that’s loaded with politics and history.