E.M. Nathanson had no intention of writing a sequel to "The Dirty Dozen," his best-selling World War II adventure novel in which OSS Capt. John Reisman leads a group of 12 former Army prisoners behind enemy lines to blow up a chateau full of German generals on the eve of D-Day.
"I wanted nothing more to do with John Reisman and the dirty dozen," said the South Laguna writer, whose 1965 novel was made into a hit movie starring Lee Marvin. "The thought of a sequel was appalling to me. Somehow sequels are never as good."
Nathanson, however, changed his mind once he began writing his recently published book, "A Dirty Distant War" (Viking; $19.95). The fact-based World War II novel is set in the Far East, a battle-torn region plagued by corruption and deception. Nathanson knew from the start that his protagonist would be an Office of Strategic Services officer: a strong, cunning, self-sufficient, cynical and sometimes cruel man--a man not unlike John Reisman.
"As I wrote it, it was the same guy," Nathanson said. "Then it hit me: Why not? There was no good reason why it shouldn't be the same guy."
"A Dirty Distant War" picks up Reisman three months after "The Dirty Dozen" ends. Reisman, now a major, parachutes onto the Burma-China border to try to prevent further conflict between two American allies--the Kachin tribesmen of Burma and Nationalist Chinese troops. His primary Far East mission is more ambitious: to work with native guerrillas against the Japanese in French Indochina.
"The one word that describes the novel is betrayal: military and political betrayal," Nathanson said. "Everybody who was involved in that caldron was betraying everybody else: Americans, Chinese, French, Japanese, the indigenous people of Indochina. Everybody is jockeying for position in the last days of World War II."
The novel, which hit bookstores in September, was preceded by a favorable pre-publication review from Publisher's Weekly ("Assiduously researched, Nathanson's accomplished novel is an outstanding read."). It has also received a mixed, though generally favorable, review from the Chicago Tribune.
But other big-city newspapers--particularly those in Los Angeles and New York--have yet to review the book. And that frustrates Nathanson.
"The delay is bad for authors," Nathanson said. "If received in the first month, a review lets people know there's a book out: It's a birth announcement. Two to six months afterward, it's a funeral oration."
To help ensure that the birth of "A Dirty Distant War" does not go unnoticed--at least in Orange County--Nathanson has been calling bookstore managers and visiting the stores. If the book is not in stock, he said, he'll call New York and "harangue the publisher."
"I'm doing more personal promotion than I ever have before," said Nathanson, leaning back in his padded black leather desk chair with well-worn armrests. "My feeling in the past was, 'I do my job and the publisher does theirs.' It doesn't work that way. You have to get out there and help."
Having just returned from an afternoon foray to the Mission Viejo Mall, he explained that he's "been playing salesman." He laughed, a cross between a chuckle and a giggle. "I hate it. It takes me away from my typewriter, which is where I should be, which is where I want to be."
Nathanson's typewriter has held him in good stead for a good portion of his writing career, which includes producing three novels, a nonfiction book and various ghost-writing and collaborative assignments.
The typewriter, to which he devotes six to 12 hours a day when he's working on a novel, is a gray Olympia portable he bought in 1958 with proceeds from the sale of an article to the Saturday Evening Post. Grinned Nathanson, whose friends call him Mick: "I like it a lot, but I'm seriously considering making the quantum leap to a word processor."
The pipe-smoking author, who admits to being in his "mid-50s," grew up in Yonkers, N.Y. As a boy, he dreamed of being a foreign correspondent, complete with a trench coat, a battered gray fedora and a cigarette dangling from his lip. Instead, at 17, he became a copy boy for Women's Wear Daily.
With time out for college and a noncombat stint in the Army, Nathanson held a variety of writing and editing jobs in his early years: a copy editor for Fairchild Publications in New York, a reporter for the Arlington Sun in Virginia, a stringer for the Washington Post and a free-lance magazine writer.
By 1959, he was living in Los Angeles, and his resume included work as associate editor for Daring Detective magazine and an editing job for a chain of pulp magazines. The year is a significant one in Nathanson's literary life: It was the year his friend, Russ Meyer, told him the story of a group of Army prisoners dubbed "the dirty dozen."
Meyer, who would later gain notoriety as the producer of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" and other "sexploitation" films, had been a combat Army photographer during World War II. Late in the war, he was assigned to shoot film of a dozen Army prisoners being held in a stockade in the south of England.
"The dirty dozen," so named by the guards because of the prisoners' refusal to either shave or bathe, had committed major or capital crimes and had been sentenced to either death or long prison terms.
As the prison guards explained it to Meyer, this "nasty and obscene" group of criminal misfits had been given a chance for a pardon if they would participate in a dangerous mission before D-Day behind German lines. If they refused, their sentences would be carried out.
"I said to him, 'That's a fantastic story!' " Nathanson recalled. "Now is this true? I don't know. Russ didn't even know. Russ was told they all perished on this mission. Is that true? I don't know."
Nathanson's attempts to determine whether the story was an actual undercover operation or merely a "latrine rumor" led only to dead ends.
He said several of Meyer's former war-time officers and buddies remembered seeing the film Meyer had shot, but they knew the story only in the vaguest of details. Nathanson pored over court-martial digests in the Pentagon Law Library but failed to find records of any Army prisoners participating in such a mission. He even visited the Army Pictorial Service Repository in Astoria, Queens, N.Y., to look for the film Meyer had shot, but he found no trace of the film.
"I never found documentation that said they existed," he said, "but I found a vast area of plausibility that it might have happened as he told it."
True or not, Nathanson was not about to abandon a great yarn. So instead of writing it as a nonfiction account, he turned it into a novel, his first.
"The Dirty Dozen" sold more than 2 million copies and has been translated into 10 languages. It was also made into the successful 1967 movie of the same name and has been spun off into two TV-movie sequels. A third TV movie derived from the original and starring Telly Savalas is being filmed in Yugoslavia, and MGM-UA TV is preparing a pilot script for a proposed TV series for the Fox network.
A planned movie version of "A Dirty Distant War" is only in the talk stages, said Nathanson, who first thought of writing a World War II novel set in the Far East in the late '60s, "when we were so heavily involved in Vietnam. I wondered, how did we ever get into this mess? Where was the beginning?"
Nathanson's research into the history of Vietnam and Southeast Asia gained momentum in 1973 after he met Charles Wilbourn, a former military intelligence officer who talked with him "about the caldron that existed" in the Far East at the end of World War II.
"Without him I wouldn't have been able to really get started in a serious way," Nathanson said. "It was he who directed me to some early contacts, some books and his own reports that gave me good background information."
Another key person Nathanson met after he began writing "A Dirty Distant War" in 1984 is retired Army Col. Aaron Bank of San Clemente, whose World War II experiences in the OSS included a mission in French Indochina. Bank, who is known as "the father of the Green Berets," experienced the kind of daring undercover military operations during the war that authors like Nathanson can only imagine.
That fact was not lost on the writer when he met Bank, still tough and wiry at 85.
"Bank was John Reisman come to life to me," Nathanson said. "And Bank gave me personal descriptions of places where he had been in China and Indochina where my fictional John Reisman was operating. He provided authentic color and even a few anecdotes that happened in his military life."
Bank also provided one of the earliest critical responses to Nathanson's novel.
Shortly after completing his manuscript, Nathanson took it to Bank to have him read it for accuracy and technical details. The old soldier was taken back by the size of the heavy manuscript Nathanson plopped on Bank's dining room table. Bank said he didn't know how long it would take him to read it, but he promised he would.
Four mornings later, Nathanson's phone rang. It was Bank.
"He said, 'Well, I finished it. It's good. You'll do very well,' " Nathanson recalled, adding with a giggle: "I saluted him over the phone."
When he's not out promoting "A Dirty Distant War," Nathanson is working on an outline for his next novel--something to do with international political intrigue.
But he's not spending as much time at his gray Olympia portable as he would like. There's always another bookstore to visit, another store manager to meet.
"If you don't sell your book," Nathanson said, "you can't buy paper to put in the typewriter to do the next one."