The Hidden Key by David E. Grogan

David E. Grogan’s The Hidden Key (Camel Press, 250 pp. $15.95, paper) is the third book in his Steve Stilwell series of thrillers. Stilwell is an attorney who works for himself in Virginia. He previously served as a U.S. Navy attorney with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps–as did the author.

The action kicks off immediately as we learn that a member of the American military has smuggled an ancient clay-tablet out of Iraq and taken it back with him to the U.S. Something takes place in the very first chapter that lets you know that just about anything is likely to happen in this book. There’s more action in the first two chapters than in many entire books.

Stilwell, who is going through a divorce, has been out of the Navy for six years. Casey Pantel is a partner in his law office. She barely survived an Army helicopter crash. Phan Quốc Cường also works for him. He once saved Stilwell’s life. In return, Stillwell helped him and his family escape from Vietnam.

Stilwell meets with a wealthy client and we learn that an active black market in antiquities has been in place since the beginning of the Iraq War. Museums and historical sites have been looted for items that are solde to raise money for Al-Qaida. Before long, his client is dead.

The tablet falls into, then out of, Stilwell’s hands. It appears that it’s not an ordinary tablet from the distant past. There’s something unique and important about this tablet. The writing on it may be a key to an ancient map of Babylon, or even the prized map itself. Or a Babylonian map of the world. Bad guys have killed in an attempt to obtain it. The good guys are after it as well, in the guise of FBI Agents Crosby and Fields who are assigned to the bureau’s Art Crime Team.

The holy Shroud of Turin becomes a plot point, as does the legendary Fountain of Youth and the biblical Garden of Eden. The action takes place in Maryland, Missouri, and Virginia, as well as in Italy, India, and Bahrain. Grogan includes several important female characters in a novel with a bit too much stilted dialogue.

Retired Navy Capt. Dave Grogan

Overall, the book reads like something written in the 1930s, perhaps by Sax Rohmer, the English novelist who created Dr. Fu Manchu.  At one point Grogan writes, “Steve felt like a detective in a B movie.”

This is a B novel—more in the “boys own adventure” genre than a sophisticated thriller. Still, it was fun to read.

The author’s website is davidegrogan.com

–Bill McCloud

A Quiet Cadence by Mark Treanor

Mark Treanor’s A Quiet Cadence (Naval Institute Press, 392 pp. $29.95) is a great Vietnam War novel.

Treanor—a Naval Academy graduate who led a Marine rifle platoon and commanded an artillery battery in the Vietnam War—tells the war and post-war stories of nineteen-year-old Marine Marty McClure. It begins on the day McClure sees “the dead man above the trees” as he is about to go into the bush. It’s just his fifth day in country.

McClure is an assistant gunner in a rifle company in which the company clerk is the guy with the most scarred face in the unit. The guys are all young. Some have young wives at home, and a couple of them are pregnant. The first Marine to greet him says, “Welcome to shit city.” McClure’s platoon is known as “the frat house” because every member in it went to college.

McClure is looking forward to his first firefight, but hopes it’s a small one. In fact, his actions under fire fall short of his expectations. He is slow to react as he watches a buddy kill “the running man.”

Back at the base camp after a few weeks in the bush means being able to heap mashed potatoes and real butter onto your battered tin chow tray. Then a shower and some sleep and before long you head back out again. McClure encounters the body of a VC and is surprised to see that it’s a young female wrapped in ammunition pouches, an AK-47 next to her.

“Her lips were raised in what looked amazingly like a pucker, as though she were waiting for a lover’s kiss,” Treanor writes, “her nipples incongruously hard.”

Treanor does a great job describing how claustrophobic it feels to tramp through the jungle fearing triggering a booby trap with each step. He also evokes the Marines’ frustrations as they try to ferret out an all-but-invisible enemy:

“We saw no enemy the day Corrie lost his leg.”

“We saw no enemy the day Cavett had his foot blown off and the new guy was ripped up by shrapnel.”

“We saw no enemy on the day Prevas lost his leg.”

The men want revenge, but McClure says there was “no one to kill, no one to pay back. We were all scared.”

When the wished-for action comes, McClure for the first time sees a buddy killed in a firefight. This makes things “somehow more personal,” and he becomes fixated on payback.

The last third of the book deals with McClure’s life after coming home from Vietnam and after leaving the Marines. What he didn’t leave behind was survivor’s guilt. He suffers through continuing nightmares as he attempts to escape the war. The quiet cadence of the title refers to his attempts to continue on with life by focusing on taking things one step at a time.

Mark Treanor

This is a powerful, unrelenting look at the experiences of a Marine serving at the height of the Vietnam War and the personal battles he continues to fight for decades after his return home.

A Quiet Cadence is a major work of combat fiction. It has my full-throated recommendation.

–Bill McCloud

Destiny Returns by Douglas Volk

Destiny Returns (Danjon Press, 415 pp. $14.99, paperback; $3.99, Kindle) is the third novel in The Morpheus Series by Douglas Volk. These books get under my skin and find a home in the part of my brain that responds to terror. Volk is a very seductive storyteller.

This time we’re dealing with kinky sex, blackmail, fraud, embezzlement, and contract murder. All that is held together by The Curse, which we first encounter at the beginning of the first book in this series,The Morpheus Conspiracy. The Curse comes about following a mysterious, brutal, incident that took place in South Vietnam involving an American soldier and Vietnamese civilians in late 1970. Volk describes it vividly in The Morpheus Conspiracy, and I’ve never been able to get out of my head. The Curse expresses itself through Somnambulistic Telepathy, which gives people the ability to travel into other people’s dreams and carry out acts of violence against them.

This book begins twenty years after the previous one, The Surgeon’s Curse ended. It’s 2006 and Chicago is dealing with of murders, most of them involving street gangs. Charlotte “Charly” Becker has been a cop for five years, but is a rookie detective assigned to homicide, a department known as “the flying shit storm.” Her father is retired from the same department and had a reputation as a brilliant detective.

The first case she’s assigned to take the lead on involves the murder of a dominatrix, apparently at the hand of a professional gunman. But, of course, nothing’s ever as simply as it seems. Hoyt Rogers, one of the main partners in a large law firm and a long-time city councilman—is a client of the murdered woman. Charly Becker finds out he has serious money troubles. Not to mention being the brother of a notorious mass murderer known as The Surgeon.

As Rogers’ troubles worsen, his appearance goes through big changes, his personal hygiene goes downhill, as his mental state deteriorates. It seems The Curse is back and the horror is about to begin all over again. At the same time, Detective Becker has to deal with pressure from the department to solve the murder, along with political complications because of Rogers’ position with the city, and a reporter who keeps pestering her for details about the case.

These books tell nightmarish tales. Horrible things keep happening. You think things can’t get worse, but then you turn the page and they do. I consider Volk to be a master of dialogue. It always rings true.

I encourage readers to start with the first book in the series and read your way through. That will give you a better sense of the over-all vibe that’s going on here—the malevolence that underlies everything.

This book is popular entertainment, one that can help us get through these stressful pandemic days.

–Bill McCloud

The author’s website is https://www.themorpheusseries.com/

Run Me to Earth by Paul Yoon

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The American-born novelist Paul Yoon’s literary novel, Run Me to Earth (Simon & Schuster, 259 pp. $26), is set in Laos during the Vietnam War and the following decades. It focuses on Prany and Noi, who are brother and sister, and their friend Alisak.

The children do odd jobs in and around a large farmhouse that has been turned into a makeshift hospital on the Plain of Jars—the area of Laos named for its very large, tall stones that many believe were the playthings of giants who once roamed the hills. It’s also an area noted for the rain that falls frequently but usually for only about a minute at a time.

Most of the hospital’s patients are civilians and most were injured during the relentless bombing of the area by American planes. Dozens of people work in the hospital and all are sympathetic to the Royal Lao government.

Life for the children is one of near-debilitating stress due to the constant bombing and the equally constant threat from the violently cruel Pathet Lao communist troops. The Pathet Lao would sometimes force people to walk roads they knew were mined or were dotted with un-exploded cluster bombs, calling the children “bombies,” and placing bets on whether they would detonate a mine or bomb.

The youngsters often helped with the patients, sometimes during surgery, work Paul Yoon describes as done in a “panic that never seemed to end.” One of the ways they try to maintain their sanity is by discussing each day the places they plant to visit that night in their dreams. Paris seems to be a favored dream-destination.

A day comes when the hospital must be evacuated so quickly that a few patients have to be left behind. The teen-age friends become separated and much of the rest of the novel tells their individual stories.

We get a tale that includes captivity by the communists and mental and physical torture during seven years in the prison of a reeducation center. There is long-contemplated desire for revenge, then eventual release to work on a collective farm. Meanwhile, throughout Laos the numbers of un-exploded bombs continues to kill and maim. Young girls with their faces disfigured by shrapnel learn to consider the scars a sign of beauty.

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Paul Yoon

Then the story moves down a hall of mirrors and broadens throughout space and time, becoming a consideration of betrayal and the importance of dreams in a lifetime of memory. Yoon offers ruminations on separation, family, the loss of innocence, and the masks that people wear.

This novel tells a story that is much bigger than it may seem at first. In the end, it is a meditation on the meaning of humanity. You’ll be a better person for having read it.

The author’s website is paulyoon.com

–Bill McCloud

The Reunion by Thomas Conrad

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Thomas Conrad served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. I read his novel, The Reunion (Page Publishing, 256 pp., $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), in the handsomely produced paperback edition. The book has an in-country photograph on the back cover of a young man in jungle fatigues standing on a laterite landscape with a hand-lettered sign that includes the words “Fixed Wing Aircraft Prohibited.”

The Reunion tells the story of Bobby Gallagher, who returns to his hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, after thirty years to bid farewell to his dying mother. Bobby wound up serving in the Army in Vietnam due to the actions of a corrupt court judge during the trial process. Bobby has a serious score to settle with that judge, as well as with the father of his girlfriend who died in a car wreck.

Bobby resents that his girlfriend’s father framed him for the accident, when, in fact, the wreck was due to his girlfriend’s drunkenness. Much of this book is about Bobby figuring out a way to even the score with his ex-girlfriend’s father.

There is substantial in-country action in this novel demonstrating what Bobby spent his time in doing in the Vietnam War. He served with a Recon team and indulged in the dangerous and often out-of-control life of a 1969 Army infantry soldier.

There are many scenes involving drug dealing and combat action. If the reader is seeking a Vietnam War combat novel, this book will not disappoint.

This is a literate, well-written novel. It works well as a book of action and as a book about a family that has fallen apart.

–David Willson

There Comes a Time by Jack Nolan

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Jack Nolan’s novel, There Comes a Time (Stillwater River, 306 pp. $16, paper; $7.99, Kindle), deals with the exploits of a group of men who refer to themselves as “The Greyhawk Six.” The guys trained together at fictional Fort Greyhawk Intelligence School and arrived together in Vietnam in September 1967 in Army intel. Nolan himself did a tour of duty in Army intelligence in the war.

The men wear civilian clothes and work different types of special operations, functioning as soldier-spies. A lot of their work involves typing and filing, but some sometimes they get involved in matters the CIA is supposed to be doing.

The sequel to his 2018 novel, Vietnam Remix, this is a tale of agents and double-agents. One of the men uses a cover in which he’s an employee of Goodyear Tire and Rubber. He also has a different, phony photo-ID and paperwork in case he needs an escape cover.

The nine chapters in this book are written as if they were individual short stories. Most could stand on their own. That includes the chapter involving one of the men who, after having his life saved, undergoes a religious transformation. It’s reminiscent of something that could have been in Catch-22.

The characters do not get involved in jungle fighting, though one survives being in a Jeep “shot to pieces,” and another witnesses a friend being shot and killed. The men frequently take Vietnamese mistresses, some in their early teens. As Nolan puts it: “In the pseudo-military realm of civilian-cover Intelligence, cohabitation with a Vietnamese woman was forbidden and, also, not uncommon.”

One of the men uses a position with the Catholic Church as his cover. Another opens an office supply store. All of them end up loving some of the Vietnamese people they come into contact with, hating others, and fearing a few.

Most of the story takes place around a fictional Military Intelligence Company’s headquarters in Saigon and at a big field station in the coastal city of Vung Tau, which Nolan describes as a “place that was immune to war by virtue of being a narrow peninsula surrounded by warships.” One of the men, upon returning home, continues to dream of the “pretty girls on the beach at Vung Tau.”

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Jack Nolan in-country

The plot also includes Vietnamese twin brothers who chose different sides in the war, but continue to love each other. In many ways, they represent the history of the divided people of their country.

This is a dense novel—not in page numbers, but in the depth of the story. It is not an action-adventure pulp-ish war novel. Written more in the style of Graham Greene, There Comes A Time was a joy to read.

–Bill McCloud

A Wolf by the Ears by Wayne Karlin

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I’ve lost count of the number of Vietnam War-themed novels I’ve read. On the other hand, I don’t believe I’d ever read a War of 1812 novel until now, having just finished A Wolf by the Ears (University of Massachusetts Press, 320 pp. $22.95, paper and Kindle), a compelling, well-crafted tale by Wayne Karlin.

In this exceptional book—a 2019 winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction—Karlin deftly weaves the fictional story of escaped enslaved people from Southern Maryland into a key part of the 1812-15 war: British Adm. George Cockburn’s raids along the Chesapeake Bay. That series of events culminated with the August 1814 Battle of Bladensburg, the burning of Washington, D.C., and the tide-turning Battle of Baltimore in September.

This book is filled with memorable characters—real and imagined. The star of the show is the unlikely named Towerhill, a smart, driven young man who devises a plan to deliver a group of fellow enslaved African Americans into the arms of the British. After a dangerous, eventful escape, Towerhill becomes a sergeant in the Royal Marines.

He leads his men (and several women) in action as part of Royal Navy and Marine forces that wreaked havoc on slave-holding Southern Maryland plantations, then defeated a ragtag group of militia at Bladensburg just outside Washington. Then came the British move into Washington, replete with the infamous burning and looting of the White House, the Congressional Library and other government buildings, and then the events in Baltimore Harbor.

Karlin does an exceptional job recreating the action at Bladensburg, Washington, and Baltimore from the British point of view. That includes an evocative, well-rendered look at the fighting on land at North Point outside Baltimore during which the flamboyant British general Robert Ross was shot off his horse and killed, as well as the massive bombardment of Fort McHenry of Francis Scott Key and “Star-Spangled Banner” fame. And the fateful decision by the British commander, Adm. Thomas Cochrane, to order a withdrawal from Baltimore Harbor in the early hours of September 14.

Karlin—who served as a Marine Corps helicopter door gunner in the Vietnam War—has written seven novels, nearly all of them dealing in some way with that war. That includes Lost Armies, one of the best literary treatments of the Vietnam War’s psychological aftermath.

A Wolf by the Ears has nothing to do with that conflict. But in this book Karlin shows that he also can evocatively and effectively write about a long-ago war and the institution of slavery. He draws a brilliant and forceful portrait of plantation life in Southern Maryland in the early 19th century. It’s not a pretty picture. There is violence and psychological abuse aplenty, which Karlin describes in detail throughout the book. That’s also true with the battle scenes. That is to his credit as no one benefits from sanitized fictional portrayals of war or slavery.

The book’s title—from an 1820 quote by Thomas Jefferson on slavery—is a theme throughout. “We can neither hold him, nor let him safely go,” Jefferson wrote about enslaved African Americans. Karlin shows the truth of those words as he presents the life-altering, wrenching decisions that enslaved people in Southern Maryland went through before choosing to join the British. And what they metaphorically became once they began actively fighting their former masters—and other Americans.

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Wayne Karlin

Here’s Karlin’s typically lyrical prose evoking Towerhill’s thoughts as he is about to order his men into battle, former slaves sharply dressed in redcoat British uniforms and armed with Baker rifles with “two foot long bayonets.”

The company, he writes, “looks as sharp and dangerous as those bayonets. Something swells in him. A short time ago, these fighters had been stooped, shuffling wraiths, shadows of men, their rebellious, free natures expressed only in furtive mutters, the subtle camouflage of song and the equally subtle ways in which they would sabotage their labor, a sharp clandestine mockery of their masters. Now they are wolves. His people.”

–Marc Leepson

VVA Veteran Arts Editor Marc Leepson’s profile of Wayne Karlin appeared in the July/August 2005 print issue—just before Karlin received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award at that summer’s Vietnam Veterans of America National Convention.

On Thunder Road by Michael Alan Shapiro

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At the beginning of Michael Alan Shapiro’s autobiographical novel, On Thunder Road (325 pp., Booklocker.com $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), main character Paul Gebhart volunteers for the draft in 1967 “to prove my manhood to the guys in the neighborhood. It was a stupid thing to do.” Having been “raised on war movies,” this New Jersey boy leaves home to receive training at Fort Carson and Fort Riley.

The last thing his father tells him before he leaves for Vietnam is, “Be smart over there and write your mother.” As the plane lifts off, a clock begins ticking in Paul’s mind as the countdown for his one-year tour of duty begins.

Arriving in-country in late 1967 he reports to Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 10th Infantry, in the Army’s First Infantry Division just outside Long Binh. He is immediately told: “You’re going to see some action with this unit.” Bravo Company is charged with helping keep Thunder Road open. That’s what GIs called Highway 13, which was used by most vehicles heading west out of Saigon.

Assigned to a mortar unit, he begins regularly smoking marijuana, and quickly learns that he is fighting alongside several guys who had been in trouble with the law and were given a choice between joining the Army or going to prison.

The daily routine for Paul Gebhart and his fellow soldiers includes morning patrols to sweep the roads for landmines. In the afternoon, they patrol through wooded areas and practice with the mortars. At night there’s perimeter duty. Pot smoking is part of the routine.

On one occasion outside the perimeter Paul experiences a mystical sense of being a part of a brotherhood with men who fought in the American Civil War and with Roman soldiers two thousand years ago, as well as with those who took part in the Crusades.  

He learns to cut a slit in his green towel and wear it like a Mexican serape to help keep the sun off his shoulders. He also learns what it means when you see sandals that have been melted into a blackened, scorched piece of earth.

As the year rolls over into early 1968 Paul hears rumors about guys who’ve dropped acid and walked off into the jungle to make peace with the enemy. But, at the same time, he also hears rumors about guys who would pay to walk point for someone else because they want all the action they can get.

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Big Red One troops on patrol

At base camp the troops continue to smoke dope. Word is that officers several steps up the chain of command are aware of that illegal activity, but allow it because when it comes time to fight the men fight.

Moving through the summer months, Paul Gebhart learns that “getting short is all about being scared.”

In this novel Michael Shapiro does a great job describing how the war changes his main character in ways that we know will make it difficult for him to escape his memories of the war after he comes home. This is a major work of Vietnam War fiction.

–Bill McCloud

Chances Are… by Richard Russo

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Richard Russo, a Vietnam War generation (he turned 70 last summer) literary lion, is best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Empire Falls, and for Nobody’s Fool, both of which became HBO miniseries. I thought those books were great, but my favorite Russo novel is Straight Man (1997), a funny, cleverly written tale told in the voice of an English professor at a small state college in Pennsylvania as he roars through a mid-life crisis from hell.

It appeared that Russo’s latest novel, Chances Are… (Knopf, 305 pp., $26.95), which came out in July last year, had a strong Vietnam War theme. For one thing, Russo dedicated the book to “those whose names are on the wall” (more on that later). Also: The plot follows three Baby Boomer college buddies from the time they watch the first draft lottery in December 1969, to sometime in the recent past when they’re 66 years old and have a reunion in Martha’s Vineyard.

The draft and what the guys did about it pops up intermittently. Mickey, the rock musician, gets a low number, and is drafted. Teddy, the sensitive guy who suffers from “spells” (whatever that is), gets a get-out-of-jail-free high number. Lincoln, the one carrying heavy dominating-father baggage, is in between. Russo tells us what happens to Mickey and Lincoln vis-à-vis the draft, and offers a line here and there about the war, but that’s about it for the book’s Vietnam War component.

We have yet to see a great literary treatment of “The Sixties,” and I had hoped Russo might come through in this book. But there is no Sixties literary magic here. With only a hint of the wit, great wordplay, and creative story-telling in his best fiction, Russo offers up a tepid tale of four decades of three nothing-burger guys dealing with family, female, financial, health, and mental problems. Are you yawning yet?

Russo embeds a mystery into the tale: what became of Jacy, a wild young woman who palled around with the three buddies, all of whom were, as one says, “head over heels in love” with her. However, none of the guys—well, no plot spoilers here. After learning about Jacy’s horrid home life and the slings and arrows of her engagement to a bland preppie, we wade through a giant red herring until all is revealed in the end.

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Richard Russo

Most of the critics liked the book. The main negative was that the female characters were shallowly developed. Not one review I read mentioned Russo’s almost constant use of clichés. We get Jacy, for example, not being able to “get the hang of it,” then “burst into tears.” Later, she “cried her heart out” after putting her fiancé on “an emotional roller coaster.” And then there’s Lincoln’s father looking “hale and hearty” and “full of his usual piss and vinegar.”

Russo, it appears, failed to heed that tried-and-true literary advice: Avoid clichés like the plague.

As for the dedication—to “those whose names are on the wall”—I kept waiting for its meaning to reveal itself. Finally, near the end, Mickey tells his buddies about the time he paid a visit to The Wall where he scanned “down the rows of names, section after section,” and realized he was “looking for the guy who died in my place.

–Marc Leepson

The Oath by Dennis Koller

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Dennis Koller’s The Oath (Pen Books, 336 pp. $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is an exciting and fast-moving mystery thriller. In November of 1966, Tom McGuire was shot down over North Vietnam and spent the next seven years as a prisoner of war, returning home in 1973 as part of the first group of POWS released.

In 2000 McGuire is a homicide detective in San Francisco when an award-winning columnist for the city’s largest newspaper, Ruth Wasserman, is murdered in an unusual manner. After being shot and killed at close-range, her arms were trussed behind her in a way that McGuire immediately realized was the manner used by the guards in that long-ago Hanoi prison.

McGuire soon recalls that Wasserman, while a writer for the Village Voice, along with a small group of female college students, had visited the Hanoi Hilton. While there, the women betrayed a handful of American prisoners who had slipped them scraps of paper with their Social Security numbers. Three of the men immediately paid the ultimate price for trying to get that info back to the U.S. government.

The investigation into the Wasserman murder soon uncovers the deaths of a few of the other women. All were found with their arms bound behind them. McGuire realizes the killer is likely a former POW now on a tour of murderous vengeance. Furthermore, it may be someone he knew back then. And why does the governor of California appear to be the next person on the list?

Ultimately, McGuire’s aggressive investigation leads to higher-ups in his department who then conspire to take him off the case. Unofficially, he continues and, with the help of a street informant, bulldozes his way through secret government hit squads and deadly Vietnamese gangs.

Koller pulls off a difficult task as he alternates chapters between those written in McGuire’s first-person voice, and third-person ones describing the unknown perpetrator known as “the man.”

Throughout the story the reader is forced to think about the point at which a person with antiwar views becomes a traitor. But Koller also makes you aware of the unintentional war-time bombing of civilian areas and to consider what constitutes an “immoral” military order. There’s the legacy of the My Lai massacre.

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Dennis Koller

The book is divided into sixty short chapters. Just past the half-way point the story begins racing, literally against the clock, toward a satisfying climax. Some might see the book as pulp-ish wish-fulfillment tale. I didn’t.

For me, The Oath worked well as a straightforward thriller. And it kept my interest throughout.

The author’s website is denniskoller.com

–Bill McCloud