The Broken Elephant/by Paul Francis


ONCE upon a lifetime ago, when the world seemed a much bigger place, a young man’s fancy might turn to making that marathon journey before settling down to a career and responsibilities.

Back in the 1960s, long before gap years became the millennial generation’s obligatory rite of passage, a few brave and possibly foolhardy souls made that giant leap into the unknown.

It might have been Marrakech, Morocco. Maybe San Francisco… oh yes, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

Or perhaps it could have been a trip round southern Europe, picking grapes in the sun… working on a Hull trawler in the icy White Sea.

One thing is certain. Few would have chosen south-east Asia at the height of an increasingly bloody Vietnam War.

But that’s exactly what a Worcester lawyer did in early 1970, when with four travelling companions, he set off in a Land Rover and headed east on the adventure of a lifetime.

However, little did David Hallmark realise as he set off on his epic journey that he would make history by becoming the only English lawyer to appear in an American court martial.

And now his odyssey has become the basis of a gripping novel by Worcestershire journalist Paul Francis, whose fictionalised account of Hallmark’s epic journey is truly a page-turner of the first order.

The main character is Matt Benson, a rookie lawyer who finds himself swept away by events and circumstances after being recruited to defend hard-talking Nam vet Sergeant Al Moreau.

Moreau has been accused of selling off military equipment destined for the soldiers on the front line. It’s going to be a difficult assignment, because he not only has to contend with some pretty tough prosecutors but also with the presiding high-ranking soldier judge, who most certainly doesn’t take prisoners.

Meanwhile, Benson has begun a love affair with a US Army Nurse while living in a squalid apartment above a seedy Go-Go bar. But is the luscious Loretta all that she seems?

Trained writer Francis is a skilled storyteller and the narrative absolutely buzzes. You feel the heat of downtown Bangkok, hear the traffic noise, become lost in the human anthill… almost sweat in sympathy as unforgiving humidity hits like the opening of an oven door.

Then there’s the band in the bar. Deliciously evocative, you can hear the classic Byrds Mr Tambourine Man arpeggio-soaked intro as it takes you back to some long-lost exams year, the Hooker-esque first line of Hendrix’s Hey Joe, the stabbing, lurching guitar start to Honky Tonk Women… yes indeed, you’re also right there in that smoky joint, eyeing up the girls and wondering whether there’s going to be some action tonight.

There is an overall feeling of authenticity about this book, for the author speaks with considerable authority, having travelled to Vietnam and seen the now peaceful country at first hand.

But what is truly amazing about his story is the way that he so effortlessly slips into the stateside vernacular.

On page after page, the quick-fire dialogue of the protagonists is entirely convincing, the court room hearing in particular fired with precisely the kind of exchanges you would expect in such a setting.

All the while, I’m thinking Perry Mason, Philip Marlowe… Raymond Chandler even. This book really is that good.

Ah yes, at last to the broken elephant. Well, you’ll have to discover for yourselves the significance of that particular character. Suffice to say that rather like the legendary great creature itself, this wonderfully told story is one that you’ll never forget.

The Broken Elephant by Paul Francis, with cover art by Lucy Dennison, is published by Brewin Books, price £9.95, and available from the usual outlets.

John Phillpott