- - Thursday, October 19, 2017



By Malcolm Mahr

Treasure Coast Press, $14.95, 231 pages

The Korean War memorial is one of the most poignant of its kind in a city full of remembrances of those who died in war.

The Korean conflict came in the wake of the global bloodshed of World War II, and it is commemorated by a surreal platoon in a rice paddy portraying the men who fought in a conflict that has become known as the “forgotten war.”

The casualties were grim. An estimated 53,000 American soldiers were killed, captured or wounded over three years. Perhaps most tragically, the Korean War was never recognized in terms of its cost. It lacked the high impact of World War II, yet in the gaunt, carved faces of that ghost platoon there is a glimpse of the lingering hopelessness of that conflict.

Malcolm Mahr, who was a decorated Army infantry officer in Korea, has written a mystery that mingles fiction and fact, and also underscores the reality of the racism which was rife in American forces in those days.

The book notes that the war the first major armed clash between the free world and communism as the world descended into what became known as the Cold War. In a timely comment the author adds, “Sixty-five years later, we still live with the consequences of a divided Korea and a militarily strong and unpredictable North Korea.”

His primary character is Frank Fernandez, a retired FBI agent still suffering from the results of a chest wound, who finds himself involved in the case of Erle Mayfield, an elderly neighbor. Fernandez is called on to help Lou Brumberg the local police chief in a north Florida town. Mayfield was 91 when he was murdered, stabbed five times.

Fernandez also finds himself facing the kind of discrimination still practiced by some of his colleagues, noticeably by a detective named Floyd Emerson, who makes his views clear by his insults to Fernandez. Also a problem is a young woman lawyer who operates on what she apparently views as a feminist philosophy that boils down to complaining about men because they are men, which tends to reduce her impact as a character and makes her a bore.

Fortunately, this is a serious book as is demonstrated in the section devoted to letters from an American serviceman in Korea that makes all too clear the unending brutality of war and how it was and is fought. It is possible that in other conflicts the letters would have been more censored but the liberty permitted to the writer in this case takes no prisoners.

As the first letter winds up he writes, “This is a strange primitive place: its odors are overwhelming, its water polluted, its people silent, almost sullen, hardly welcoming. It makes me a little nervous.”

And there is no question that he is right to be nervous. The subsequent battles of the Korean War have by now been documented for the appalling suffering of those who fought them, and have also stressed the unflinching courage of men battling terrible odds and facing almost certain death. The strategy and ferocity of the Chinese are reflected in the stress suffered by Americans coping with them. Fernandez and his crime officers do solve the mystery at the center of the book in the end, which has a nice, gruesome twist to it that requires reading the book to appreciate it.

Fernandez is a wry, often sad character whose personal life is badly damaged and whose physical condition leaves much to be desired. Now and again the author tends to tell the reader too much in terms of technical details, but the plot is an intriguing combination of the past and the present, and the problems still afflicting the region.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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