Be prepared

And Then All Hell Broke Loose by Richard Engel Simon Schuster 243pp Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 575 baht

A reporter outside my homeland for more than a half-century, I never had the gall to call myself a foreign correspondent, lacking the qualifications of working for an American publication — my byline in India, Japan and Thailand notwithstanding — even though Time magazine gave me an honourable mention.

To me, Ernie Pyle personified the foreign correspondent. I mourned his death in Okinawa during World War II. To be sure, there have been others too numerous to mention. Not least television correspondents, such as Edward R. Murrow.

As a rule, I prefer books by them, rather than their short snippets. More meaty. More comprehensive. William L. Shirer’s The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich is my favourite. More so than his daily covering of the conflict.

NBC News chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel’s pieces about the Middle East evoked the same reaction. Give it to me all at once, please. Happily, he does so now and again. Factual, analytical, yet a mite short. Which And All Hell Broke Loose also is. In a word, it’s too short by half.

Engel spent 20 years covering the area — four years in Egypt, three years in Israel, 13 years in Iraq, Syria, the region. He speaks Arabic. Between 1996 and the present, he witnessed the impact of the United States on the Middle East. America’s foreign policy there has been a disaster.

Not having a clue, Washington thought that their dictators could be replaced by democratic forms of government. Easy enough to conquer, they are quagmires to hold. Opposing factions took to massacring each other. The coalition forces could do no right. Their weapons were used against them.

Al-Qaeda are vying for leadership of the international jihad. It is open season on the West. The rules of combat no longer apply. They are training men and children to be martyrs. More bloodshed is coming. Nine-eleven was the harbinger of things to come. Compromise isn’t in their dictionary.

Engel offers no solution. Invade Syria? To what end? Ideally the US, UK, Russia, China and Japan should unite against them. But is it likely? And Then All Hell Broke Loose offers more than food for thought. It makes you want to go out and buy a weapon.


Out Of Bounds by Val McDermid Sphere 485pp Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 350 baht

Scottish crime

Fictional crime novelists deserve to be credited for not using the same plots. Similar, certainly, but not the same. Their brief is to come up with variations. And make their literary sleuths original.

It must have been frustrating when Dashiell Hammett’s private eye Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe, both out of Los Angeles, were virtually identical in word and deed. There are only so many ways to commit murder, all having been vividly described in stories.

Sleuths, however, are as distinct as humans can be. Not in their determination to see justice done, but how they go about it — their habits, relationships, thought processes, intuition, physical prowess, willingness to break the rules, use of violence. Not least their intuition. A cop’s gut feelings can’t be overestimated.

Scottish author Val McDermid’s literary creation Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie works out of Edinburgh. Heading the Historic Crimes Unit, her assignment is to solve cold cases, laid aside for decades but still open. Suspects, still alive, are reinvestigated.

Scientific advances in crime detection provide a clear look at evidence murky at the time. Old alibis appear shaky. Witnesses don’t stick to their stories. All of which is brought out in Out Of Bounds. A wife, Karen finds herself closer to a woman friend than to her husband.

Karen is interested in two cases. In one, a booby-trap blew up a Cessna plane, killing a politician and two women 20 years ago. In the other, a joyrider was murdered only a few weeks ago. She is disturbed by the connection that the lad was the son of one of these women.

Most of the story has Karen interviewing an assortment of people who knew them, learning that all isn’t as it seems. Her interrogations and analysis are long and intense, more so than other sleuths. And her detailed description of Edinburgh would fill a guide book.

This reviewer takes exception to the book’s 485-page length. One hundred pages fewer would have made for a tighter plot. Still, I allow that her characters are three-dimensional and her plots plausible.