"A cracking good yarn"

By Thomas F. Norton (Air&Space/Smithsonian)


It's a pleasure to read a well-researched novel based on real events. In this case, the "real" part is the brief defense of Rangoon mounted by the American Volunteer Group (Flying Tigers) and the Royal Air Force in the autumn of 1941, as the Japanese army overran Southeast Asia.

Remains begins with the discovery of a Flying Tiger P-40 in the jungles of Thailand, presumably at the present time, more or less. The book is a well-told tale of what happen to some of the pilots who tried to hold back the Japanese attack on Burma, and of the friends, acquaintances, lovers, and enemies whose lives they touched.

In fact, a few of the characters are real people, such as Claire Chennault, George Marshall, Hap Arnold, and the legendary Jumbo Majumdar, who has already been the subject of several worth books. Despite the usual denial up front, other characters are based on real people, and it's fun to work out who they are. Having spent some time chatting with Tex Hill only a few days before reading this books, I had no difficulty figuring out that he was the model for the Tex Murdock character. I thought I spotted my old pal, the late R.T. Smith, along with Ed Leibolt or maybe John Petach, both of whom were killed in real AVG action.

While the guessing game is fun, it isn't the best reason to read Remains--the story is. It is concise, the characters are easy to keep straight, you can read about the actual events elsewhere, and--best of all--it's a cracking good yarn about interesting people, including the Japanese fighter pilot whose story adds special realism to the battles.

Years ago, the historical novel genre supported several writers, such as Frank van Wyck Mason, Kenneth Roberts, and C.S. Forester, whose research and thoughtful character development put their books at the top of some very selective reading lists. Daniel Ford is such a writer and, as it happens, is more qualified than most to base a novel on the real Flying Tigers. His history, Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group , is, without question, the most readable and complete account of the AVG yet written. He has also written about the AVG for Air & Space/Smithsonian, and, in the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that he is a contributing editor to the magazine--though not one whom this reviewer has met.

Good novels about World War II, and especially its more obscure actions, are increasingly rare as its participants and events fade into history. This is among the good ones.

[Actually, if Tex Murdock is anyone, he's Robert Neale of the AVG 1st Squadron. Most of the characters are based on several life stories. Blackie, for example, joins the AVG from a Texas flight school like R.T. Smith, but he's a Princeton dropout like Gil Bright, he dies in circumstances like those that killed Bob Sandell ... and the discovery of his Tomahawk, which begins and ends the novel, is based on the recovery of Mac McGarry's P-40 a few years ago. And so it goes.... -- Daniel Ford].

Back to 'Remains'

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