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Asian Haze Paperback – February 11, 2015
"Warlight" by Michael Ondaatje
A dramatic coming-of-age story set in the decade after World War II, "Warlight" is the mesmerizing new novel from the best-selling author of "The English Patient." Learn more
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I don't want to spoil the story for those that haven't yet read it so I won't delve too deeply into the plot. I will say that it involves DEA agents who go on an ill-fated mission in Burma and the aftermath of that raid. The narrative also includes scenes in an upstate New York town and a sheep station in Australia. The scope of this novel is very ambitious as a result and author DeWayne Twitchell gets big points from me for having the imagination (and courage) to weave his characters into it. He also gets points for illustrating the myriad problems facing law enforcement agents who go after those criminals that have a global reach and enough money to keep themselves out of harm's way a good share of the time. When it comes to drug arrests, for example, very few kingpins ever get caught. Most of the people doing time in prisons around the world for drug-related offenses are small fry.
That said, I did not find his characters particularly sympathetic or believable.
For example, one of the characters is a sulky teenager from an upper-middle-class family. He steals money from his parents to buy drugs, skips school frequently, lies to his friends, and generally comes off as a spoiled boy with a deep sense of entitlement. He seems to have no redeeming characteristics at all.
Despite that, a veteran cop berates his parents during an investigation, apparently believing that it's their fault the kid is a thief, liar, truant, and drug abuser. I covered a lot of cops during my nearly 50 years as a journalist and I can honestly say I never saw that scenario play out. Without fail, the cops I wrote about kept their thoughts to themselves even if, for some unknowable reason, they did not look at the kid as a snot-nosed punk. The fact is, berating the parents, especially these days, would have (a) served no purpose and (b) landed the cop in front of the chief at least and probably before a review board. A suspension, maybe even a dismissal, would have been the probable result. A rookie might have made that mistake. No veteran detective would have.
I also had a hard time relating to the protagonist, Randall Arthur. When he is introduced we learn that he has a Ph.D in history and teaches at a small upstate New York college. We also learn that he is a former DEA agent, who left his teaching position at one point and signed on with the agency because of a drug-related tragedy in his own life. We're told that he has since retired from the DEA, gone back to teaching, and recently started his own private investigations agency. It is in his capacity as a part-time private detective that he gets pulled into an investigation when the widow of a former agent asks him to find out what really happened to her late husband. I have no issue with that scenario whatsoever. It's plausible. I did, however, take issue with the fact he is sleeping with a student, a much younger woman. His situational ethics in this instance and one other later in the novel, frankly, bothered me because he is not painted as an anti-hero who does good things for his own reasons. Instead, he is portrayed as someone with a high moral purpose.
Other issues: At one point a man who owns a remote sheep station in the Australian Outback is said to have street contacts that alert him to a new, potent drug. Really? How would he convince a major international drug dealer - most of whom are extremely cautious to the point of paranoia - that a man who spends his days running a sheep ranch actually has those kinds of contacts? And if he could somehow convince that dealer that he was "legitimate," how would he then justify the idea that he wanted to buy a large consignment of drugs? The dealer would be aware that a rancher with no history of making major drug buys would also not have a distribution network and that would set off alarm bells in his mind. How was he going to get the drugs to the streets? Who would sell for him?
As I said, I am conflicted about this novel. I liked its scope, its twisty plot, and the fact it highlights some real issues facing law enforcement. I could not relate to the characters, however, and I found there were scenes in the novel that stretched the boundaries of believability beyond the breaking point.