The Last Cyclo to Thanh Ha (Vivid Publishing, 298 pp., $24.99) is the second Steve Conway novel in a proposed trilogy about a Manila hotelier who travels to Vietnam to search for a wartime friend. We are told that the first book in this short series, The Last Jeep to Baclaren, involved “bullets, babes ’n bad guys, ” and was a terrific action adventure set in the Philippines at the time of the “People Power Revolution.”
Last Cyclo very much follows that path, but is set in Saigon. There is no indication in the author information that Pullinger is a Vietnam veteran. His photo appears to make him the right age, and he was born and educated in Brisbane, Australia, so he could be. We are informed that he has “worked in and out of Southeast Asia for over 20 years.”
That’s the reason his Southeast Asia details ring true to this reader. Few American Vietnam War-related novels begin with an epigram from Ho Chi Minh, “Nothing is more important than independence and liberty.” This sets the tone for this action-packed adventure tale.
Our hero, Steve Conway, is an Australian Vietnam veteran who fought in the Battle of Long Tan, and lost friends there. His return to Vietnam is fraught with emotion, especially his visit to the site where his friends died long ago.
Conway falls in love with Kim, a young Vietnamese who seems to return that affection promptly and with little or no good reason this reader can see. In fact, every woman in the novel seems smitten with Conway—fromtwenty-somethings to fit old grannies—and eager to bed him.
Danger soon enough asserts itself from more than one quarter. There are two bad guys in this novel, a stereotypical Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, described as a psycho with PTSD. He tries to kill Conway with a Ruger M40 semi-automatic rifle. No serious attempt is made to try to individualize Marvin the Marine. He’s the standard-issue crazed Vietnam vet we’ve had foisted off on us too often in popular literature and movies since the early 1980’s.
The other bad guy is a vicious and jealous Vietnamese fellow who tries to kill Conway via hit and run. Conway sticks around Saigon for longer than he intended due to his love for Kim, and decides that his hotel business would profit from opening a new one in Vietnam.
This adventure novel includes much detail of the hotel business and of meals that get consumed, including one of chili carne, a dish I never encountered in country back in the day. The novel did hold my interest, though, despite a serious shortage of commas and the occasional cliché- ridden sentence. To wit: “She looked good enough to eat.”
The plot contrivances and coincidences seem hatched straight out of the Thackeray era. The book contained a couple of howlers, including this one: “The U. S. is now looking after its Vietnam vets.” I hadn’t noticed. We are told that the next Steve Conway novel is The Last Tuk Tuk to Bank Na, and that it takes place in Bangkok.
Last Cyclo is a beautifully designed book with a gorgeous cover. You might like it.