For my tastes, Nelson DeMille writes good books and marginal ones. Thanks to "Up Country" arriving in Hong Kong a month or so before its U.S. release date, I've read the book and thought I would offer a few observations to fans and new readers alike.
"Up Country" is billed in the blurb as a military murder mystery that took place 30 years ago in Vietnam. Paul Brenner, of "General's Daughter" fame, is back, called upon by his old commanding officer to return to Vietnam and investigate the killing of a U.S. lieutenant by his captain during the Tet Offensive.
The reason I say "billed as a murder mystery" is because the action of that plot line takes up only about fifty pages of this 654-page novel. The rest is travelogue, war history and personal reminiscence.
DeMille at his best does description and dialogue well. The fact that Paul Brenner of "Up Country" is indistinguishable in attitude and conversation from John Corey in "The Lion's Game" doesn't detract too much. I like cynical, sarcastic characters, and I suspect that it is DeMille's personality coming through, which makes me like him more. And since the author was in Vietnam at the same time as his protagonist, I'm even more convinced that we're listening to Nelson DeMille strolling down memory lane. That is not necessarily a bad thing if you approach the book from this angle.
What was troublesome for me, having read many of his other books, was turning the pages looking for a little action. Don't hold your breath. It's a travel book - good for those who never served and want to know how it was, or for those who served and never returned but would like to from the comfort of their sofas. But it was a let-down for someone who was there and imagined that when he finally went back it would be by plane rather than by book.
I spent the same time in the same places and saw many of the same paddy fields (they mostly look alike) as Paul Brenner, but rather than experiencing camaraderie with this character, I felt he had taken me hostage for a returning-veterans tour. To paraphrase one of the statements in the book -- Been there. Three times. Done that. Six times - and I hadn't planned on doing it again.
If you'll forget you just read "The Lion's Game" and get in the mood for in-country musings and meanderings, you just may enjoy the trip. After all, the man can still write.
On a nitpicking level, his two main characters are always smiling. They say things followed by: "He smiled." or "She smiled." Smiled, smiled, smiled... but then they're in love, or are they just good enemies? It got a bit old, but that's just personal taste because the author is doing it deliberately. And I noticed that "none" is too often used with a plural verb, as in "None of them are going...."
I like Nelson DeMille and I look forward to his books. And he's certainly allowed to change the pace. But in this case, forwarned would have been forearmed.
So that you can gauge my taste in "DeMilles," I've read "The Charm School" three times, "The Lion's Game" twice, "Word of Honor" twice and enjoyed the "The General's Daughter." Even in a foxhole with nothing else at hand, however, I wouldn't reread "Plum Island" or "Spencerville." "Gold Coast" is somewhere in the middle, now joined by "Up Country."