Play the Red Queen

Written by Juris Jurjevics
Review by Kristen Hannum

A couple of cops with the Army’s Criminal Investigations Division in Saigon, 1963, are charged with stopping “the red queen,” a femme fatale with perfect aim who leaves a red playing card bearing the image of a woman on her victims’ bodies. She kills while riding a Vespa, wearing a traditional ao dai and conical hat, and she’s young and beautiful. Those are the bones of the plot of Play the Red Queen, but the novel’s impact rides on how visceral its moment in time is— how it feels as though the story couldn’t have happened in any other era—and on how Saigon itself becomes a character. The story sizzles with its tropical, heat-dazed energy and swept me up in a kind of passion for the city—or perhaps it was a passion for Jurjevics’s writing.

Jurjevics, a Vietnam vet who cofounded Soho Press, edited luminaries like James Baldwin and was the author of other praised books before he died in 2018. Play the Red Queen was published posthumously.

He not only gets the details right—the smell of sewage, insecticide, and jasmine; the chaotic traffic mix-up of rickshaws, scooters, bicycles, and military vehicles; the opaque CIA operations, the Buddhist South Vietnamese troops, arrogant Catholic priests, gullible reporters, and the cigarette-smoking communists—but I also quickly found myself caring about the two military cops as they attempted to find a killer, their part in a problematic intervention for a morally ambiguous regime in what becomes a shooting war by the book’s end. Recommended.