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Up Country    by Nelson deMille order for
Up Country
by Nelson deMille
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2003 (2002)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Nelson DeMille has been on my must read list of thriller writers for many years now, for his twisting plots and the credibility of his military contexts. I enjoyed Up Country much more than its predecessor, The Lion's Game, though Paul Brenner and John Corey share an entertaining irreverence and cynicism directed at authority. Both these heroes appeared in previous novels. Paul Brenner made himself unpopular with his superiors in The General's Daughter, after which he retired / resigned. Now he has too much time on his hands, and too much time apart from Cynthia Sunhill, his significant other and former partner.

An email from Brenner's ex-boss sends him reluctantly to a meeting at the Vietnam War Memorial (whose names also form the background for the book's cover). There he is asked to return to Vietnam to find out the truth behind 'a name on this wall of a man who was not killed in action. A man, who was, in fact, murdered' ... and not just by anyone. The Vietnam connection comes from a recently recovered letter, in which a North Vietnamese soldier describes witnessing the deliberate murder of a U.S. army lieutenant by a captain. After the usual banter, Brenner decides to go, though he knows full well that there is more to this investigation than he (or the reader) has been told.

Back in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City, Brenner quickly encounters his chief adversary, security chief Colonel Mang, and a young (and lovely, of course) American expat businesswoman, Susan Weber, who hands over contact information (as a favor to her boyfriend) and then attaches herself firmly to Brenner's enquiries. Like the investigation, Susan is somewhat of a mystery. She accompanies Brenner on his travels up country, where he discovers that 'Nostalgia is basically the ability to forget the things that sucked.'

I had not progressed far in this novel, before concluding that the author must have served in Vietnam himself, and indeed, at the end of the book DeMille mentions that he was in Quang Tri Province in 1967 and 1968, and returned to Vietnam in 1997. There are many insights that seem personal, for example Brenner's rejoinder to Susan's question on why he survived ... 'The dead, if they could speak, would tell you why they died, but the living have no answers', or his response to her comment on the benefits of counseling for veterans - 'Sigmund Freud in consultation with Jesus Christ wouldn't have helped. Most of us found our own way back.'

DeMille delivers his usual witty thriller, but Brenner's insights into Vietnam, then and now, add depths to the novel that make it a truly compelling read. As Brenner himself muses at the end 'the journey is more significant than the destination' and this is true for the reader's journey Up Country, with its formidable and fascinating insights for anyone who lived through the sixties.

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