It’s an amateur-sleuth mystery set in 1986 at the U.S. navy base in Subic Bay, Philippines. The protagonist is a sailor on the USS Harvey, a fictional Belknap-class guided-missile cruiser. The murder happens on the ship, but most of the story takes place in the Philippine cities of Olongapo and Manila. A reviewer wrote that it’s a “fun read” and that she “felt warmth for the team of heroes.” I was glad she mentioned those things. I wanted to write an entertaining story with likeable characters. Is the book filled with a lot of military jargon and nautical terms?
There’s very little of that. There are scenes on board the ship and you'll learn some navy things—a restroom is a "head" for example—but it’s not a Tom Clancy-type thriller. Decker’s Dilemma is about life on an American military base in a foreign country. It's part Philippine culture, part American culture, and part navy culture. Ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances.
You said the reviewer mentioned a “team of heroes.” Tell us about the characters.
The lead protagonist is Elliott Decker, an enlisted sailor on the Harvey. He’s the type of guy who has the knack for getting others to take risks. He’s big hearted, though he wouldn’t want that to get out. Hack Wilson’s a new guy aboard ship and Decker’s best friend. Big Mo’s a veteran sailor on the Harvey and a voice of reason among the group. But he’s content sitting on a bar stool giving advice and letting others chase the bad guys. Another voice of reason is Vega Magpantay, Decker’s old flame and now a close friend. She’s a Filipina and a rookie cop on the Olongapo City police force, struggling with a chauvinistic boss while trying to solve a crime and keep Decker out of trouble.
Why the U.S. Navy as a setting?
Every aspiring novelist is told to write what they know. I spent over eight years in the navy, including a tour of duty on a ship at Subic, so it made sense that that would be my setting. I also thought the navy would make a great backdrop for a mystery series. There are plenty of military thrillers, but very few mysteries, especially amateur-sleuth mysteries, that have been set on a navy base. And I don’t know of any set at Subic Bay.
How long did you live in the Philippines?
Two years. I was there from May 1987 to July 1989 stationed on board the USS Sterett. I met my wife there. Lynn and I had an apartment on Jones Street in Olongapo. It’s where Hack’s girlfriend, Lee Mansfield, lives in Dilemma.
Your book is set in the 1980s. That was a turbulent era in Philippine history.
That's right, and I often compare it to the social and political upheavals during the 1960s in the United States. The issues were different in the Philippines, but it had its share of assassinations, violence, and protests: the People Power Revolution in 1986 that ousted Ferdinand Marcos, six coup attempts over the next five years to overthrow Cory Aquino, and battles between the Philippine military and the New People's Army, a communist rebel organization. Throw in a growing anti-U.S. bases coalition and the occasional natural disaster and I thought it made for an interesting era to set my novels. Why are there so few American-authored books set in the Philippines?
It’s surprising to me. The two countries have had a long, shared history for more than 100 years, and Subic Bay was the largest American military base outside the U.S. until it closed in 1992. During the first half of the 20th century, the Philippines was a U.S. territory and, later, a commonwealth, much like Puerto Rico today. Even after the Philippines gained independence in 1946, the U.S. was still very much a part of the late 20th century political and military life of the country. What are some things you remember most from your days at sea?
Three things come to mind. The first incident happened in late December 1987 when I was on the USS Sterett. We were escorting oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War as part of Operation Earnest Will. We were sailing a tanker through the Straits of Hormuz one night. Three Iranian patrol boats came out to meet us. We went to general quarters and had a tense couple of hours sitting there locked and loaded for action.
Another memorable event was seeing the massive oil well fires at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 when I was on the USS Harold E. Holt. We were operating with the USS Nimitz carrier battle group in the northern part of the Persian Gulf . The Iraqi’s had set fire to over 600 oil wells when they retreated from Kuwait. The amount of smoke darkening the sky was unbelievable.
The third thing’s a combination of events. I spent all my time on surface ships, but I had the opportunity to make a carrier landing (as a passenger) and to spend a couple days at sea in a submarine.
How did you get to land on a carrier?
It was when I was on the Holt in 1991. I volunteered for temporary duty in Bahrain to help with logistics support. It was sweet duty. I had an apartment, a Toyota Camry, and a shoebox-sized cell phone. And the apartment complex had a bar and restaurant. It was the best two weeks of my navy career. Every night it was a nice meal, a gin and tonic, and, if the mood struck me, I’d walk down the street to a Dairy Queen for ice cream. I almost felt sorry for my shipmates out at sea. Almost.
But what about the carrier landing?
I eventually had to return to the Holt. The battle group had just exited the gulf on its way back to Pearl Harbor. I flew in a C-130 from Bahrain to an air base at Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, for a connecting flight to the Nimitz. It was supposed to be a short, one-hour flight to the carrier, but the plane had mechanical problems and I was forced to spend the night in a hotel. I flew out the next morning, but, of course, the carrier didn’t stop at night so now the ship was a four-hour flight from Abu Dhabi. We landed on the ship somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It wasn’t a jet, but it was still exciting to land on deck. It reminded me of watching those old movies of WWII planes landing on a carrier. Incidentally, I learned from Leland Shanle, a naval aviator and fellow Blank Slate Press author, that my landing qualifies me for full membership in the Tailhook Association.
That’s a long way from Illinois. Tell us about your hometown.
Newton is a small town in the south-central part of the state between St. Louis and Terre Haute, Indiana. It’s a farming community of 3,000 and was a wonderful place to grow up. I couldn’t imagine a better childhood.
A lot of small towns have some sort of claim to fame. What’s Newton’s?
It’s most famous resident was Burl Ives, who grew up in the county and attended high school in town. He rarely came back, but he had some relatives still living in the area. In fact, his youngest sister was my first grade teacher.
How could anyone not like the narrator of Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer? Was she similar, personality-wise?
She was a nice woman, but I remember her being on the stern side. Compared to Burl, I guess that would put her more like Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof than the host of Rudolph. The one thing I do remember from first grade is throwing up in class. I had had two chocolate milks at lunch, those small cartons they used to give us. Later in the afternoon it came back up. I didn’t come close to making it to the restroom. In fact, I don’t remember even trying. It happened right there at my desk. One of many reasons teachers are underpaid.
How did you end up attending college so far from home?
I attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale out of high school, but graduated from Hawaii Pacific University and the University of Hawaii while I was stationed at Pearl Harbor. And I’m still going to school. I’ve been working on a Ph.D. in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City since 2008. It’s been a long road, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
For the students out there, what’s the key to academic success?
Stay away from chocolate milk.
How long did it take you to write Decker’s Dilemma?
A month-and-a-half to write the first draft. Then I spent the next two years rewriting and revising. I was fortunate to have readers who gave me some great advice along the way. What worked, what didn’t work. Things like that. The story changed a lot, for the better, and eventually, with their help, it got me published.
How accurate are the descriptions of the ship, the navy base, and places in town? Are the characters based on anyone you know?
The characters are all fictional. I tried to be as accurate as possible in describing places and streets on base and in the cities. I used old maps and photos I had collected from my navy days and, with the help of online info, I was able to recreate what it looked like in the 1980s. There are a couple minor things that I changed to fit the story—the putt-putt golf course on base, for example, is moved half a block closer to the library—but, otherwise, it’s accurate.
I also visited the Philippines in July 2014 and walked around the former base and visited some old haunts in Olongapo to double-check the accuracy of things. We also took a tour of Malacañang Palace in Manila. We got to stand on the balcony where Ferdinand Marcos gave his inaugural address in 1986, which turned out to be his farewell address. He left the country later that night.
Cal Jam is a frequent meeting place for your characters. Is that a fictional nightclub?
California Jam, or Cal Jam, was a real place and one of the more popular nightclubs on Magsaysay Drive in Olongapo. Sadly, it’s no longer in business. It was two stories inside with a big stage and floor-to-ceiling speakers. Quite a scene. I changed it up a bit for Dilemma—I added windows with a view of the street. I also didn’t have access to it after hours like Decker does, but Lynn and I would hang out there often in the late ’80s. Arnel Pineda, the lead singer of Journey, used to play Cal Jam regularly with the Amo Band. I can still picture him on stage there like it was yesterday. Now we have to pay a lot of money to hear him sing.
How do you pronounce Magsaysay? It's mäg-sī'sī as in “mug-sigh-sigh.” It's not pronounced “say say” as it appears. Incidentally, the street is named after Ramon Magsaysay, president of the Philippines in the 1950s.
Did you have a chance to see Marcos when you were stationed at Subic?
No, I never saw him. Lynn remembers seeing Marcos when she was in grade school in Bicol. He flew in on a helicopter, probably campaigning in town, and the kids were there to watch him land on the school grounds. We met Imelda once, though.
How did you get to meet her?
The Marcos family fled the Philippines in 1986 and lived in exile in Honolulu. I transferred to a ship at Pearl Harbor in July 1989. A couple months later Ferdinand died. It was a Thursday and I was at sea. When the ship returned to port on Friday, Lynn said she had met some Filipino friends who were going to view Marcos’ body Saturday morning. The Philippine government, at that time, did not allow the body to return to the country. Remember, this was only three years after the People Power Revolution.
It turned out Marcos’ body was on view at their home in Honolulu. A beautiful place on the hillside overlooking the city. A Rolls Royce and a couple other luxury cars were parked in the driveway. Very much like Mr. Fortuno’s house in Dilemma. We parked our Honda Civic hatchback a block away down the street. Inside there was a large room with the open casket. Out back they had refreshments, cake and punch and stuff like that. Very elegant. Imelda was there and mingled with everyone. We had a chance to shake her hand and offer condolences. She was, obviously, very emotional, but thanked us for visiting.
That had to be surreal.
It was, especially for Lynn. Up until 1986, Marcos was the only president she had known. He was in office from 1965 to 1986. It would’ve been like LBJ still being president halfway into Reagan’s second term. And Imelda had become a powerful political figure in her own right. Of course she was, and probably still is, best known to Americans for her shoe collection and other extravagances. But she was a politically active First Lady, more so than any U.S. president’s wife, and she did a lot of good along with the excesses. So it was quite a sight to see her walking around the house and meeting her and talking to her. It inspired the scene in Dilemma when Decker and friends meet the Marcoses in Malacanang Palace.
I’m working on book two in the Subic Bay Mystery series. It’s titled Yamashita’s Gold and takes place a few months after Dilemma ends.
That’s an intriguing title. Who’s Yamashita?
Tomoyuki Yamashita was a Japanese general during World War II. Early in the war, he had conquered Singapore and Maylaysia from the British and had the nickname, the “Tiger of Malaya.” Later in the war, he was sent to the Philippines to defend the country against General MacArthur and his Sixth Army that had landed at Leyte on October 20, 1944, to retake the islands. There’s an urban legend that General Yamashita had his troops bury billions of dollars of gold, looted from Asian countries, in the Philippines. It was supposedly buried in caves and tunnels around Manila and throughout Luzon to hide it from the Americans.
Do you believe there’s really gold buried somewhere in the country?
It’s still a mystery. General Yamashita never admitted it and he didn’t live long after the war. A U.S. military tribunal in Manila found him guilty of war crimes and hanged him in February 1946. Marcos and some others have claimed to have found the gold. Some people think the CIA retrieved it after the war and the U.S. government used the money to fund the rebuilding of Japan and Cold War actions around the world. I don’t know what to believe, but there are treasure hunters searching the Philippines to this day. I thought it would make a great McGuffin and give the protagonists an opportunity to learn about and visit WWII sites in the Philippines.
Who are some of your favorite mystery authors?
I’m a big fan of Lawrence Block, Nevada Barr, Bill Crider, and Steven Havill. I also recently read Fail by Rick Skwiot, a fellow Blank Slate Press author. I have to add him to my list of favorites.