MacArthur Must Die

by Ian Slater,
336 pages,
ISBN: 1556113838

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Keeping Us Guessing
by John Doyle

OF COURSE, he didn't die like this -- assassinated by an idealistic Japanese cadet in 1942. We all know that. The thrill is in idle, wild Speculation about how and why the assassination might have been attempted. Like Frederick Forsyth's Day of the Jackal, which concerned an attack on De Gaulle, or Jack Higgins's The Eagle Has Landed, where the threat was to Churchill, Ian Slater's MacArthur Must Die succeeds in taking the reader on a fanciful trip back in time. We know that in each case the great man survived and goodness prevailed, but there's nothing more hair-raising than finding out how the bad guys almost won.

In this case it is necessary to engage the reader's attention on the importance of General Douglas MacArthur in 1942. The novel opens in Japan in the fall of that year, where War Minister Hideki Tojo is poring over maps that display the vast reaches of Japan's sweeping military conquests. It bothers him, however, that MacArthur has promised "I shall return." In the real circumstances this could hardly be true, but Slater's trick is to establish that the Japanese military leaders had a strange fear of the charismatic American general. It really doesn't matter why -the premise is that they knew there was something trancendent about him.

If MacArthur must die, then it is necessary to concoct a devious, ingenious plot to kill him, and that's where Tomokazu comes in. It turns out that Clever, sweet-natured Young Tomokazu was a student in Australia before the war began and knows the territory around Brisbane, where MacArthur leads a kinglike existence in a local hotel. Tomokazu, chosen to be a lone assassin, is sent into Brisbane in a plane launched from a submarine. What the scheming generals in Tokyo don't know is that Tomokazu is still in love with a teenage Australian girl.

Not only is Elizabeth Lawson gorgeous, but she's got guts: it took Courage to date a Japanese student white war was stirring all around them. It certainly was true love ("When they kissed he could feel the spreading softness of her breasts, and she, his hardness against her"), so while she thinks of him in Japan, lie's thinking of her as lie prepares to return to Australia.

MacArthur himself isn't much of a character in all of this. Slater simply lists his military accomplishments and tells the reader that MacArthur attracted the sort of public and press attention that movie stars usually receive. He's the target, not the main man in this novel.

The reader is meant to truly care about the assassin and his lovestruck girlfriend. MacArthur Must Die is the story of star- crossed lovers first, a speedy thriller in parts and, occasionally, a primer on naval and military technology in the Pacific campaign during the Second World War. The capacity and reliability of handguns, rifles, and torpedoes are described at length.

For the most part this is a good, competent thriller -- as the plot moves toward its inevitably spectacular ending the body Count rises and an Australian highway becomes littered with corpses. What saves the book from banality is the emphasis on the Australian experience in the Second World War. There is a sense of urgency to Slater's descriptions of what happens to Elizabeth Lawson's father and brother when they go to war. It is as if the author were anxious to insist that, in the midst of fanciful speculation about wild-eyed assassins tearing around Australia, it is well to remember that ordinary people went out to fight for their country and faced extraordinary horror. That edge of passion carries more verisimilitude than the technical jargon about weapons.

Ian Stater has succeeded in writing another skilful, efficient thriller that is satisfactorily suspenseful. It isn't credible, but it does move along with enough grace and speed that any hint of hokum disappears. Like the best what-if fiction, it carries enough surprises to keep anyone guessing.


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