Great Asian thrillers to get you through the summer


LARRY BOND’S RED DRAGON RISING: Edge of War, by Larry Bond and Jim DeFelice. Forge, 2010, 380 pp., $25 (hardcover)

Future war fiction is mostly fantasy, and fortunately such stories seldom come true. But some do. One example was a book titled “Banzai!” Published in 1908 by Parabellum (nom de plume of Ferdinand Heinrich Grautoff, 1871-1935), it featured the improbable scenario of a Japanese naval sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.

The long-defunct American weekly magazine Liberty ran “Lightning in the Night,” a 12-part serial novel by Fred Allhoff (1904-1988). In the final episode, which appeared Nov. 16, 1940, the U.S. emerged victorious in a war against Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany through the use of a nuclear weapon — this almost five years before the atomic bomb was developed!

Larry Bond and Jim DeFelice are two novels along in a series that spins a war between China and Vietnam. (Bond formerly collaborated with “techno-thriller” giant Tom Clancy.)

The news lately has been full of accounts of the face-off between China and Vietnam over the two countries’ territorial claims to the Spratly and Paracel Islands. But the casus belli in this work of fiction is a food shortage. It seems global warming has triggered major floods in China. Beset by food riots, China’s leaders decide to send its army south, claiming a Vietnamese provocation. (This scenario is not especially far-fetched. A dispute over Cambodia sparked a brief but bloody war between the two countries in 1979.)

In the series’ first installment, “Red Dragon Rising,” Josh MacArthur, an asthmatic American naturalist, was engaged in field work not far from the Chinese border when the Chinese invaded. His colleagues are killed, but he manages to flee into the hills, and CIA operative Mara Duncan is ordered to lead a team of U.S. Navy SEALs to infiltrate Vietnam, track MacArthur down, and spirit him out of the country so he can testify to China’s perfidy at the U.N.

Meanwhile, Zeus Murphy, a U.S. military adviser in Hanoi, devises some do-or-die stratagems to help Vietnam delay the Chinese onslaught, including a guerrilla attack against the Chinese staging areas on Hainan Island.

To keep the story from becoming overly America-centric, much of the narrative centers on a Chinese commando officer named Jing Yo, whose job is to either capture or kill MacArthur. Trained in the martial arts by Zen monks, Jing is a formidable warrior. But his efforts are thwarted time and again, partly by his egotistical superiors and partly by the ineptitude of China’s regular troops, who find that invading Vietnam is indeed no piece of cake.

As the Chinese air and ground assault intensifies, Jing Yo continues his solitary and single-minded pursuit of MacArthur and the Navy SEALs south to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

The two books can be enjoyed separately, and I’m dying to see how (we can safely predict) Vietnam, with U.S. assistance, will turn the tables in the next installment.

Summer book list

This summer I’ll be reading two short story anthologies set in Bangkok and Singapore. “Bangkok Noir” (Heaven Lake Press) features a dozen crime stories set in the Thai capital. While most of the contributors are European and North American expats, two are native Thais, including a story penned by a retired general in the Thai police. “Crime Scene Singapore” (Monsoon Books), appears to be an excellent introduction to crime in the Lion City.

I also want to mention “The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing” (Simon & Schuster). Tarqin Hall’s creation, Vish Puri, “India’s Most Private Investigator,” promises to be a worthy successor to the late H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote. Chock full of memorable characters and a complex crime to solve, Hall’s book is wonderfully witty.

In “Satori” (Grand Central Publishing), multilingual assassin Nicholai Hel, who appeared in the 1979 Trevanian best-seller “Shibumi,” returns in this prequel by Don Winslow. Set in the early 1950s, the CIA coerces Hel, a White Russian by birth and a Japanese by adoption, to undertake a suicidal mission to assassinate the Soviet commissioner in Beijing.

In the months ahead I’m looking forward to reviewing “Devil-Devil” (SOHO) by Graeme Kent, first in a new series featuring Ben Kella, sergeant in the Solomon Islands Police Force, who teams up with American missionary Sister Conchita.