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Posted on Jan 18, 2011 in Books and Movies

The Officers’ Club – Book Review

By Jerry D. Morelock

The Officers’ Club (Forge Books, 2011). 304 pages. $25.99

A good mystery novel needs to blend several key elements: interesting, believable characters whose fate readers actually care about; an exciting, compelling story line; enough action (and romance) to propel the plot and engage readers; and a genuine mystery that keeps you guessing right up to the final pages. A great mystery novel must not only contain all of the above, it must be written by a story-teller of unusual narrative skill with an innate talent for capturing detail, atmosphere and nuances of character. Ralph Peters’ latest novel, The Officers’ Club, is firmly in the latter category – it’s a great murder mystery.

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Peters, writing as Owen Parry, won the 2002 Dashiell Hammett Award presented by the International Association of Crime Writers for his novel, Honor’s Kingdom.That recognition seems especially appropriate in Peters’ case – like the award’s namesake, Hammett, the greatest crime writer in American literature, Peters mines personal experience and background to capture in his narrative the authentic atmosphere of the time and place in which his story is set. In The Officers’ Club, the time is 1981; the place is Ft. Huachuca, Arizona. Peters knows both only too well.

As this reviewer also knows from personal experience, the U. S. Army of the late-1970s-early-1980s was deeply troubled, struggling to find its way again in the aftermath of the shattering experience of the Vietnam War. It was not a happy time to be a soldier. Over time and through the efforts of a core of dedicated professionals the Army would be rebuilt; but in 1981 when this novel is set, that long and painful process was just beginning. Military history fans, therefore, will find the book especially revealing in its spot-on recreation of a troubled era in the Army’s past that the history books too often gloss over. Standard history texts typically leap over the era from the end of the Vietnam War to the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War, usually quickly chalking up the Army’s transformation to the Reagan buildup and leaving it at that. Peters’ novel helps fill in one of the blank spots in Army history by giving readers a rare glimpse of just how far that profound transformation had to go.

Peters absolutely “nails” the authentic atmosphere of time and place of the novel’s setting: Ft. Huachuca, the Arizona desert post that hosts the Military Intelligence Corps’ branch schools during an era when the Army’s morale was at rock bottom. In Peters’ skillful hands, readers are transported there through time and space – we feel the oppressive, oven-like heat, visualize the contrast between the desert’s stark beauty and the Army post’s monotonous chock-a-block tawdriness, cruise the scruffy neighborhoods that sprawl just outside the post’s gates, experience the frustration of a disappointingly few faculty instructors whose attempts to do the right thing are stymied by senior officers afraid to rock the boat and by officer students who only want to “get by” and spend their extracurricular time mindlessly getting drunk and jumping into bed with each other. As Peters recreates the setting and era, “Fort We-Gotcha” is a seamy “Peyton Place without the moral restraints.” It’s a noirish atmosphere that just begs for a juicy murder mystery, and Peters doesn’t disappoint.

Incisive character development is another strong suit for Peters, and those he creates in The Officers’ Club are compelling, well-developed, believable and – most important – interesting. Each one has a unique history that Peters is able to convey to readers without resorting to clichéd stereotypes or launching into complicated and multiple flashbacks that are so annoying in mystery novels written by lesser talents. As it is in real life, the line between “hero” and “villain” in The Officers’ Club is blurred – much like the characters in a Hitchcock film, everyone is guilty of something. That’s certainly the case with Peters’ main character, Lieutenant Roy Banks. An officer who loves the Army despite its flaws, Banks is a former enlisted soldier who was commissioned as a Military Intelligence branch lieutenant via Officer Candidate School. Banks, who has experienced Army life from the barracks to Officers’ Row, should know better, yet has allowed himself to fall into a sweaty-sheet affair with a married lieutenant (Nicole “Nikki” Weaver) who’s attending the course but inevitably will rejoin her husband upon graduation. Banks, a jazz aficionado who works out his love-life and Army-life frustrations with long, punishing, solitary runs in the desert, is also a “wounded warrior” – but the scars are on his psyche, the result of a pre-Army-career tragedy that Banks only reluctantly reveals. As Peters vividly creates the book’s “warts and all” main character, it’s easy to imagine Banks being played by John Garfield if a film version of The Officers’ Club had been made in the 1940s.

The novel’s compelling mystery is who brutally murdered beautiful, drop-dead sexy Lieutenant Jessica “Jessie” Lamoureux, a scheming, manipulative über-promiscuous vamp seemingly hell bent on working her way through all the males on post (Banks seems to be the only one immune to her cynically-wielded sexuality – he knows a rattlesnake when he sees one). The suspects in her well-deserved yet nonetheless shocking death are virtually legion, as Banks muses after learning of her murder: “Dinwiddie? Had she driven the poor bastard crazy? Crazy enough to kill her? Or Jerry? He had the skills. And, in his mind, the reason. Gene? Earnest, silly Pete? The Kraut? Another broken lover, or his spouse? Jessie left plenty of casualties in her wake. Or had it been one of her murky Tucson pals? Or the Mexicans? Jessie played with so many different kinds of fire that getting burned was inevitable.”

The Officers’ Club is no staid “drawing room” murder mystery a la Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels with their obligatory climactic scene in which “all is revealed.” Peters is too savvy a writer and understands his subject and human nature too well to try to convince readers that murder – like life itself – can always be wrapped up in a neat and tidy package. It’s messy, complicated and rarely as simple as it might seem on the surface. Since the plot unfolds through Banks’ eyes, readers only learn what he learns, and only when the information is revealed to him in the course of the novel. Peters’ characters are satisfyingly human, making assumptions, reaching conclusions and taking actions based on necessarily imperfect knowledge. In this regard, Peters’ novel is reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ neo-noir gem of a film, Blood Simple – characters assume they know what’s going on and act accordingly, often with disastrous results, since they’ve misjudged the forces at work and have mistakenly perceived the other characters’ real motivations, intentions and actions.

Like Hammett and other classic mystery writers such as Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain, Peters shows in The Officers’ Club a superb mastery of creating interesting characters, authentic atmosphere and a plot that keeps readers guessing right up to the novel’s final pages. Particularly in mood and character interaction, it’s evocative of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Cain’s Double Indemnity – indeed, Peters’ book can stand as a fitting homage to those mystery writer masters of the 1920s-40s. Ralph Peters’ The Officers’ Club is a great read that we highly recommend.

Armchair General rates Ralph Peters’ The Officers’ Club 5 STARS, our highest rating.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ralph Peters is a retired U. S. Army Lieutenant Colonel intelligence officer and former enlisted Soldier who is a long-time member of the Armchair General team. His regular column, “Crisis Watch,” is one of ACG’s most popular departments. A frequent media commentator, Peters is today’s most insightful strategist and is Fox News’ strategic analyst. He is an acclaimed New York Times Bestselling author of over two-dozen fiction and non-fiction books.

REVIEWER:
Jerry D. Morelock, PhD is Armchair General magazine Editor in Chief who writes the magazine’s regular book and film review department, “Must Read-Must See.” His military service spanned 1963-1999, a period that began with an Army dominated by World War II and Korean War vets, endured the trauma of Vietnam and ended with a revitalized service prepared to meet the global challenges of a dangerous new world.

 

1 Comment

  1. I had no idea that Ralph Peters wrote the fantastic Abel Jones Civil War mysteries under the name Owen Parry. I loved everyone of those books and hope he has more in the pipeline. Armed with this new information, I am certainly going to check out Peter’s new read.

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