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."