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BookBrowse Reviews The Three-Nine Line by David Freed

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The Three-Nine Line

by David Freed

The Three-Nine Line by David Freed X
The Three-Nine Line by David Freed
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2015, 272 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2015, 272 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick
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An award-winning journalist returns to his popular detective series, sending his protagonist, Cordell Logan, to Vietnam to root out the bad guys.

Detective fiction can often provide the certainty that's missing in the world at large: the murderer gets caught, the case is solved, the protagonist lives to fight another day. Loose ends get tied up, and the world makes sense again. But what happens when a detective confronts the truly senseless?

In The Three-Nine Line, author David Freed sends readers on their fourth adventure with the former National Security assassin Cordell Logan, a rough and ready flight instructor who undertakes a mission whose broader aims might well be senseless: trying to come to terms with the epic brutality of the Vietnam War.

Readers first met Cordell Logan, a retired special-ops agent who specialized in counter-terrorism, in 2012's Flat Spin, a fast-paced yarn that found the former assassin-turned-flight-instructor searching for the murderer of his ex-wife's new husband. In the next two installments, Logan was pulled back into sleuthing by pleading family members or former government supervisors, involving him anew in all kind of domestic intrigue – usually missing person cases, or the hunt for lost, secret government property. In The Three-Nine Line, Freed has finally allowed Logan to venture abroad, setting his latest work in Vietnam – a broadening of horizons consistent with the tantalizing backstory Freed has given his readers about Logan's past as a globe-trotting covert government operative involved in quasi-military actions that are likely illegal and have never officially existed.

The Three-Nine Line initially finds the wise-cracking Logan hewing closely to the contours of his modest domestic ambitions in Rancho Bonita, a drowsy southern California seaside retreat, giving flying lessons to students from the local college and bored suburbanites, and still living in the converted garage of the irascible nag and landlady Mrs. Schmulowitz. Unlike most fictional detectives, Logan really isn't a detective – he's just a guy trying to live his life quietly, enjoy a little Monday Night Football, and take to the air when the turbulence of life on the ground starts to get to him.

But his experience and expertise in covert operations can't be denied, and Logan often finds himself – well, usually others (ex-wives, former military colleagues) find him – in the thick of a missing persons investigation or a search-and-rescue operation. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, whose mind rebelled against the tranquility between cases, Logan just wants to be left alone. Fortunately for readers, he has a low threshold for refusal. And in The Three-Nine Line, when a former member of Logan's counter-terrorist group calls with the urgent plea that "your country needs you," Logan is reminded that his life is about more than flight lessons and charter rides, "taking famous movie stars and their girlfriends whale watching."

Logan's unofficial mission is to solve the mystery of the murder of a former prison guard who worked at the POW prison camp sarcastically dubbed "the Hanoi Hilton," a real-life hell hole that became infamous for its brutality against American POWs during the Vietnam War (see 'Beyond the Book'). In the preface, a former Hanoi Hilton guard known to prisoners as "Mr. Wonderful" has just turned up dead. Coincidentally, a group of former POWs is also in Hanoi to conclude an official state visit that will result in a prosperous U.S.-Vietnamese trade agreement. But the Vietnamese police have fingered the former POWs as the killers, which threatens to topple the delicate trade negotiations. The U.S. President needs answers. Cordell Logan's phone rings, and soon he's aboard a military transport to Vietnam.

Although the locale of Logan's adventure in this latest installment is more exotic than his previous assignments, the prose remains largely unadorned. Freed's breezy, conversational style moves the story along with efficiency. As is the case with all Cordell Logan mysteries, a cast of quirky characters comes along for the ride, though Freed doesn't seem to worry much about depth of characterization. In true pulp fiction style, his characters come into prominence to help advance the plot, and then disappear back into the narrative. And despite the new setting, Freed doesn't spend much time parsing the Vietnamese landscape for meaning or difference. His descriptions are workmanlike: set the scene, cue the dialogue, move the story along. Here is a typical descriptive passage:

The lake was an oval, about a mile around, and sat squarely in the historic center of Hanoi. It was surrounded by manicured flower gardens and lush leafy trees under which young lovers strolled arm in arm and new brides posed in their gowns for wedding pictures. Kids chased each other, laughing. People sat on concrete benches, reading books and eating ice cream cones. A toothless vendor tried to interest me in an assortment of cheap folding fans.

Accurate, to be sure, but not much different from a fairly generic description of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, or New York's Central Park. The background of The Three-Nine Line is Vietnam, but I wish Freed had allowed it to creep a bit more into the foreground. As an award-winning journalist and feature writer, Freed has the trained eye, and ear, to make different places feel different.

Nonetheless, The Three-Nine Line is an efficient and satisfying standalone mystery with a dollop of political commentary about the Vietnam War to give it some heft and enough red herrings to keep most mystery fans hooked. Cordell Logan's shadowy network of former special ops colleagues – and his real life readers – probably couldn't ask for a better friend.

Reviewed by James Broderick

This review is from the The Three-Nine Line. It first ran in the September 16, 2015 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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