Play the Red Queen by Juris Jurjevics

Mystery
Play the Red Queen by Juris Jurjevics wartime crime novel

This posthumous publication is Jurjevics’ third novel. The co-founder of Soho Press died in 2018 from the long term effects of Agent Orange on his heart. Like so many other Vietnam veterans, Jurjevics’ experiences of that war stayed with him for the rest of his life and they informed his writing.

By October 1963, the Vietnam War had already been going for eight years. The communist North was supported by China and Russia, and the South (a dictatorship in all but name) was supported by the United States. France had attempted to colonise Vietnam, but pulled out a year before the conflict began. Officially, at this point, the Americans were only providing advice to the South Vietnamese military, but President Kennedy had increased the American presence from under 1000 advisors to over 16,000 since his election in 1960.

Such a momentous undertaking, with massive military and political implications, requires a great deal of effort and a great deal of money. It is what happens to that money, and why, that interests Jurjevics. To begin with, there is the inevitable corruption that occurs as a proportion of that money moves through the levels of the army’s bureaucracy, far from home and from scrutiny, mostly low level pilfering and black-market business. But there is also the more sophisticated corruption that occurs at a political level, is run by the CIA and often benefits business interests.

It is that corruption which Jurjevics wishes to explore in his novel. He has two MPs from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, Ellsworth Miser and Clovis Robeson, investigate the mysterious case of a Vietnamese woman assassin, dubbed The Red Queen for her habit of leaving behind playing cards at the scene of her executions. The killings themselves are extremely daring and require considerable skill with a gun, suggesting a high level of training. She rides up to the victim on the back of a moped, in busy civilian areas, and fires one fatal shot, escaping before any soldiers or local police can react. In the last week she has made three attempts and had three kills.

Information received leads the MPs to expect the next target might be a high value hit – either the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, or Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr, the American ambassador to South Vietnam. There is nothing the pair can do to protect Diem, but they get themselves on Lodge’s security detail. This is a nightmare posting because of the ambassador’s infamous insistence on regular tennis and swimming practice, making him a soft target.

Play the Red Queen, is an old-school, almost old-fashioned crime novel it could be said. Jurjevics uses the mystery genre to explore a time and a place, and no opportunity is missed to enlighten the reader. Miser is white, already a Korean vet, and older and more experienced than the black Robeson, and Jurjevics subtly shows us the differences between them. His writing is full of descriptions of Saigon, from the weather through to the clothing, the food and the customs, but it is his slow reveal of the cynicsm and corruption of the South Vietnamese government, that of the CIA and by extension the American government, in their support of Diem that I found most interesting.

Play the Red Queen, then, is a timeless reminder of the ability of the crime novel to be not just an exciting mystery but a social and cultural history.

Also see Martin Limon’s Sueno and Bascom Novels set in Korea such as Ping Pong Heart, The Ville Rat and The Iron Sickle. Or, see Michael Connolly’s classic first novel, The Black Echo, featuring Vietnam vet Harry Bosch.