Shepherd’s tale of Cambodian freedom fighters against the communist Pol Pot regime that slaughtered untold thousands before the words “ethnic cleansing” appeared in the dictionary may draw comments like “Who remembers? Who cares?” There is action enough in the plot – characters and educational exposition to flesh out the historical relevance – to engage “history know-nothings” and “corn-country James Bonds” alike. The first page of Legend reveals enough about Scott to make him more familiar than a neighbor across the street.
In the opening chapters, Shepherd succinctly sets the scenario. The CIA wants Scott to pose as a Russian radio reporter in Cambodia and secretly feed info about the Pol Pot regime’s atrocities, which began in 1975. It may be a stretch to believe that in less than a year of training, a native Illinoisan could learn enough Russian to pass for a Russian reporter, but as Johnny Carson once said, “If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.” Shepherd’s descriptions of the process and the Washington, D.C., area make the premise credible.
The author’s expositions of facts that read like media news releases are a necessary broth for the ingredients of fictional characters and plot. At the end of chapter five, Mick casually glances into a closed hotel restaurant and observes “a small figure running away into the kitchen.” The novel’s namesake is revealed in the opening words of chapter six.
Lovea Duval is the daughter of a French archaeologist and Cambodian woman who is raised in the ways of Western culture and becomes a revolutionary against Pol Pot. There is a price on her head. The action that follows makes the book hard to put down, revealing a lot about war-torn Cambodia after the unification of Vietnam. The story almost becomes cinema on a page as he flees from the Khmer Rouge, and makes it as far as Rangoon before accepting another assignment. For that he heads for Hanoi, part of a group recovering remains of downed servicemen from the Vietnam War.
In the jungle with that group, Mick becomes separated and is captured by Khmer Rouge close to the Cambodian border. The Khmer in turn are being hunted by the Peoples Republican Army squad known as the War Wolves and led by Lovea Duval. The Wolves are well known to the Khmer because their tactics are unpredictable, and they take no prisoners. Duval and her troops liberate Mick, then part company again because he and a companion, a liberated U.S. soldier and longtime POW, have to reconnect with U.S. interests in Saigon. Soon after, Mick leaves Vietnam for the Philippines and from there, back to Carbondale, Ill.
Curious for a 177-page novel is the introduction of Book 2 with only 64 pages remaining. That begins with Mick’s return home and straight into the unmade bed where his girlfriend Kathy slept the night before.
Meanwhile, back in Cambodia, Lovea Duval’s efforts against Pol Pot have led to the installation of a new government in that nation, and Lovea is coming to the U.S. to speak to the United Nations to describe the atrocities she witnessed. She convinces Mick to meet her in New York City and testify also.
The final chapters describe a tragic climax to the life of the heroic Cambodian and follow with a protracted denouement in which from the ashes a Phoenix of hope (the reconciliation of Mick and Kathy) rises, surprisingly, in the final sentence of the story.
The Legend of Lovea Duval is a solid read for those who don’t want to slog through technical details of the machinery of war and espionage while enjoying an excellent story, well told.
Job Conger is a Springfield poet, author and historian.