There's something about the character of Warrant Officer Paul Brenner of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigative Division that brings out the talkiness in best-selling writer Nelson DeMille .
Brenner's first outing was "The General's Daughter," a provocative but wordy and repetitive mystery that examined the new coed military in a harsh light. "Up Country" is even more ambitious, but it makes the previous novel seem like it moved at a lightning-fast pace.
But that doesn't make "Up Country" a bad book. Still, fans of DeMille 's action-packed yarns should be prepared that this examination of today's Vietnam and a veteran's reconciliation to his past is structured more like a James Michener novel than the murder mystery it purports to be.
Brenner, now retired from CID, is bored and looking for something to do when his old boss - Col. Karl Hellman, with whom Paul regularly locked horns - recruits him for a job.
A letter written by a North Vietnamese soldier has come to the Army's attention through a program designed to help both sides settle the questions of troops missing in action. The letter describes the murder of an American lieutenant by a captain during the battle for Quang Tri during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Karl proposes that Brenner pose as an American veteran visiting old battlefields and find the witness.
Brenner figures there are other ways of narrowing the suspect list, and there is another, hidden reason why he is being sent to Vietnam for the third time in his life. But like the first two times, he answers the call of duty.
His guide is Susan Weber, an attractive American expatriate investment consultant in Saigon - er, Ho Chi Minh City. But instead of merely helping him get acclimated, Susan insists on accompanying Brenner on his mission. Is it romantic interest, patriotism, a hidden agenda on behalf of another government agency or all of the above?
Brenner also has attracted the unwelcome attentions of Colonel Mang, supposedly of the Immigration Police. Mang dogs Brenner and Susan's every move as they make the long journey north to find the missing witness.
Forget the plot of "Up Country," which takes up a mere fraction of this 700-page book. It's only an obvious contrivance to get Brenner to travel the length of the country and reflect on Vietnam, past and present, and his country's involvement there. And the novel also has an almost unforgivable non-ending - though that's not a bad metaphor for the war itself.
DeMille , a Vietnam vet who took a similar tour in 1997, takes a detailed look at Vietnam under communist rule, and the mission does add a level of tension that a straight memoir would not.
The travelogue is fascinating as it progresses from the South, struggling to establish some kind of market activity, to the gray North, still faithful to the dead god of Marxism, and to the countryside, where Montagnard tribesmen wait patiently for the Americans to return with platoons, not McDonald's franchises.
This is more than just a geography lesson, though. DeMille is nearly as good as Stephen Hunter when it comes to portraying the heart of the American fighting man, and Brenner's recollections of the war and his coming to terms with it is meaningful, even poignant, stuff.
That doesn't mean DeMille still doesn't have fun with his sarcastic, rebellious hero. While visiting Hue, for instance, Brenner hears a pair of American academics examining the ruins of the ancient city and tsk-tsking at "the death and destruction we (Americans) leave wherever we go."
He offers to take their pictures, then points out, "the Communist political cadres executed over three thousand citizens ... by shooting them, bashing their heads in, or burying them alive? Smile!"
Brenner observes the couple were now "a little less ignorant ... but obviously not happy with this new information. Hey, you're supposed to learn things when you travel. I had."
And so will you if you read "Up Country" - and you'll probably be happy about it, too.