War Crimes by Martin Robert Grossman

War Crimes (Koehler Books, 276 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper, $5.03, Kindle) is Martin Robert Grossman’s second mystery novel featuring Jerry Andrews, a Vietnam veteran and recently retired Los Angeles Police Department detective. The former Green Beret is living in a peaceful village in northern Mexico when he gets a call from an old Army buddy, Jon Compton, a retired Texas Ranger. Compton asks Andrews to help him resolve an issue he’s taken on.

Seabrook, Texas, is a small fishing town near Houston. In the mid-1970s Vietnamese shrimpers who fled their homeland ended up working the coastal waters there. Feelings of prejudice, combined with fears of competition, led some locals to attack the newcomers and burn their boats. There also was at least one murder, and the influx of Vietnamese led to the appearance of a revitalized Ku Klux Klan.

Things calmed down and nearly two decades went by. But now the body of a Vietnamese male is discovered. He had been shot in the hard and had his throat cut. A playing card–an ace of spades with the Grim Reaper holding a scythe—was found on the body. Former Ranger Compton volunteers to help investigate. Then, following a second similar murder, he decides to ask his old buddy Jerry Andrews to join him.

Soon there’s a third victim, with mutilation added to it, and Compton tells Andrews they need to quickly solve these new murders “under the radar” before the situation causes a new race riot. But racist skinheads are already beginning to gather in town and a reporter for the local newspaper hopes to break the story wide open. After a fourth murder they know they’re after “a deranged serial killer” who is very likely a Vietnam War veteran.

There’s a broad cast of characters in this story, many with military backgrounds. There’s a nearby VA hospital and a private retreat set up for veterans. The founder of the latter is driven by a desire to slow down the numbers of brave men fought in the Vietnam War only to end up being killed by “the lifestyle” they’ve “been forced into by an ungrateful nation.”

Martin Grossman

The direct connection between War Crimes and Grossman’s previous novel, Club Saigon, in addition to the character of Jerry Andrews, is the illicit movement of cocaine and heroin between Vietnamese-American communities. In both novels the author frequently refers to Vietnamese people as “Orientals.” That term today is outdated, but at least its use is consistent throughout the two books.

After reading War Crimes and Club Saigon you could end up believing that every American who served in Vietnam left the war zone as damaged goods. Some did, but most didn’t. Remember that as you read these novels in which memories of the war eventually pour out in extremely violent fashion.

Grossman’s website is martinrobertgrossman.com

–Bill McCloud

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

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/

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

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Chris Bohjalian writes best-selling thrillers—lots of them. His twenty-first and latest, The Red Lotus (Doubleday, 400 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle, $24.50, audiobook), has a strong Vietnam War theme.

One main character—an NYC private investigator and former cop—served in the trenches in the war. One minor character, an upper-crust guy (“Boston Brahmin, Patrician, old money”) served as an Army lifeguard in country. The uncle of one of the main characters died in combat in the war. Agent Orange and its effects on humans and animals—mainly rats—comes up periodically. And a fair amount of the action takes place in Vietnam, albeit in the present day

Rats are at the center of this fast-moving novel. So is the Plague. So is a sociopath who enjoys torturing and murdering people. So is Bohjalian’s fondness for filling the book with in-your-face, clinical descriptions of fatal illnesses and serious medical conditions, along with their medical treatments. The main character, Alexis, a millennial ER doctor, has a self-cutting addiction. Bohjalian fills us in on the razor-blade specifics of that malady, as well as all manner of emergency injuries and illnesses that Alexis treats on the job.

That is, when she isn’t trying to spearhead the investigation into the mysterious death of Austin, her boyfriend. He died violently in Vietnam, purportedly run over by a car during a solo excursion while the young couple was enjoying a biking vacation there.

Alexis discovers that Austin had lied to her and everyone else about why he choose Vietnam for this biking adventure. He claimed he wanted to see the place where his dad—the lifeguard—had been wounded and his uncle had been killed. Turns out his rear-echelon father had been injured in a golf cart accident at Long Binh Post and his uncle died in another part of Vietnam.

Those revelations set in motion a plot that moves back and forth between Vietnam and New York City. The tale includes a smart Vietnamese detective, the dedicated American Nam vet PI, an edgy NYC hospital administrator, and an array of bad guys and gals—and rats.

The sociopath is a rat aficionado. He’s also a maniac who cooks up a dastardly scheme involving a unique biological weapon: rats injected with a new form of the Plague that does not respond to antibiotics. Austin, a clean-cut guy who raises money for the hospital where Alexis works, gets involved in the scheme and pays for it with his life. The plot picks up steam as the hunt for Austin’s killer (and the real reason he went to Vietnam) meshes with the main bad guy’s plan to unleash ultra-killer rats on the world. Things zoom to a blood-drenched climax in New York City.

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Chris Bohjalian

Along the way, Bohjalian gets in a bit of Vietnam War support troop bashing at the expense of Austin’s Army lifeguard dad. Rear-echeloners were “guys playing basketball and sitting around getting tan at the swimming pools,” the Vietnamese cop explains to Alexis. “Plus the tennis courts. The softballs fields. The libraries. The weight rooms. The nightclubs.”

Who knew?

If you’re up for delving into the fictional ramifications of evildoers unleashing the Plague on the world as we go through a real pandemic, this could very well be the book for you.

The author’s website is chrisbohjalian.com

–Marc Leepson

Executive Order 14900  by Gary A. Keel

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Gary Keel joined the U.S. Army, served in the Vietnam War, came home, and went on to a long career with federal government. His first novel, Executive Order 14900 (Aperture Press, 267 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is a political tale with a shadow over it. In the book, President Jerome Elliott is elected with overwhelming support from the American people. But  he loses that support following a series of bad decisions on his part—and suspicions about his motives.

Things get so bad that thirty-four governors call for a constitutional convention to reform the federal government and the Elliott fears he is losing control. So he orders the 82nd Airborne Division to march on the convention and arrest the participants for being domestic insurgents.

The Georgia National Guard, however, mobilizes to stop this from happening. The two military forces clash in the small town of Madison. The entire country threatens to erupt into violence. Television reporters Nicole Marcel and Luke Harper race to uncover the truth behind President Elliot’s actions and expose his past.

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Gary Keel

As the publisher notes, “if the dark truths are realized, they risk sundering the very fabric of American democracy.”

This is scary stuff, indeed. Gary Keel has produced yet another political thriller that seems fated to be made into an exciting movie—one I can hardly wait to see.

The novel is well-written. The characters are interesting and the plot moves right along.

I recommend it to all political thriller fans.

The author’s website is garyakeelauthor.com

–David Willson

The Surgeon’s Curse by Douglas Volk

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Douglas Volk’s exciting paranormal crime thriller, The Surgeon’s Curse (DanJon Press, 471 pp. $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), is the second book in his The Morpheus series. As such, it creates some difficulties for a reviewer because you do not want to ruin the reading experience for anyone who has not read the first one, The Morpheus Conspiracy—one of my favorite reads of 2019.

That book centers on a curse that was picked up by an American soldier in Vietnam while in the midst of a performing an inappropriate act. The curse continues into this book. There’s very little mention of the Vietnam War this time, but it’s significant that the evil that runs throughout the story originated there—at least as far as this story is concerned. In reality, this specific evil has probably existed since the beginning of time.

Twelve years have elapsed as this book begins, so the year is 1986. Dr. Alix Cassidy returns, still carrying out research on nightmares and their possible link to mental illness. She specials in the controversial field of Somnambulistic Telepathy, which makes it possible for some sleeping people to control another person’s nightmares. In the previous book the main character has the ability to step into people’s nightmares, doing them harm or even killing them. That ability is now carried out by a different character.

The killings in this story are extremely brutal, though Volk does not linger over them voyeuristically. There is a serial killer afoot who calls himself The Surgeon for some pretty nasty reasons. He’s a dream-traveler being pursued by detectives using traditional means, but before long they turn to the sleep scientists for help. Eventually, most of those bearing down on the bad guy begin suffering hellish nightmares.

Things get even more interesting with the introduction of quantum physics, more specifically the concept of quantum entanglement. That, as we all know (cough-cough), is the discovery that two nuclear particles millions of light years apart can interact with each other. Mix that with some good old Cajun voodoo and stir well.

More than just a casual read, this book suggests that this curse may be a form of energy created by unknown forces from the unseen space-time world. Pretty serious stuff. A Nightmare Team is created to confront the bad guy in the most efficient manner, in a dream.

Douglas Volk is a marvelous storyteller and excels at writing realistic dialogue. That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re dealing with his subject matter. So, buckle up for a fast-moving tale that plays out in a “Devil’s Quadrangle” of Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, and northern Maine.

Part-horror, part-police procedural, it’s every bit as good as the earlier book in this series.  It might scare the hell out of you.

–Bill McCloud

The Morpheus Conspiracy by Douglas Volk

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Douglas Volk’s novel, The Morpheus Conspiracy (DanJon Publications, 470 pp. $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), is a great work of terrifying horror and unrelenting suspense. As I read it, I kept waiting to see if the story was going to fall apart. It never did.

The book begins with a mysterious incident that takes place in South Vietnam in late 1970. The story then moves to Atlanta and Boston during the months of the Watergate scandal.

After coming home, the main character David Collier literally wears his Vietnam War experience on his face. Massively disfigured in a fire during the war, he grows his hair long to conceal that part of his face, except for times when he chooses to reveal it. With an eye that never closes because the lid was burned away, he is reminded of what he went through every time he looks in a mirror. And he becomes driven by feelings of betrayal.

Collier believes he was betrayed by the Army, by his nation, and by his girlfriend who ended their relationship when he came home from Vietnam. Laura Resnick has her own reasons for splitting from him, but Collier is sure it’s because of what happened to his face.

Collier dreams about getting back at her, and it turns out that he seems to have the ability to cause her to have horrendous nightmares. And not just her, because he can also enter the dreams of other people he believes have offended him and bring harm to them.

Other characters include a VA doctor and a scientist with an interest in sleep disorders. They are ultimately brought together with Collier and Resnick in a story written in such a way that you can almost see and feel four solid walls closing in on them. Though much of the story takes place in a broad and wide dreamscape, it’s ultimately a very claustrophobic tale.

Frequently while reading. I found myself picturing the text in images like you would see in a graphic novel. I mean it as a compliment when I say this book would make a great graphic novel.

The Morpheus Conspiracy can be read on a few different levels: as entertainment, as psychological drama, and as an example—though greatly exaggerated—of what the Vietnam War did to the nation and to many of us who served in it.

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Douglas Volk

My favorite quote from the book is when Collier recalls a buddy who died in front of him: “He was history. He was the history of the Vietnam War.” What a great way to commemorate each death in that war. And those deaths are horror enough for this world.

This is a thrilling read and one of my favorite books of the year.

The author’s website is www.themorpheusseries.com

–Bill McCloud

Editor’s note: Douglas Volk, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1970-76, is an life member of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America. He is donating one dollar from the sale of each book to VVA.

Angels in the Balance by Michael J. Ganas

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Michael J. Ganas served in the Vietnam War as a crew chief and door gunner on both Hueys and Loaches during his 1969-70 tour of duty with the 17th Air Cavalry Regiment. Angels in the Balance (Outskirts Press, 576 pp. $41.95, hardcover; $28.95,paper; $4.99, Kindle), his third novel, centers on a Army helicopter crew chief and door gunner in the Vietnam War. This commonality led me to conclude that much of the novel is based on Ganas’ Vietnam War experiences.

He has transformed his material into a novel by coming up with a plot centering on a huge cache of emeralds. The emeralds make everyone in the book rich, but not without a lot of Sturm und Drang and plot twists. I enjoyed the novel but would probably have appreciated a straight memoir just as much.

Angels in the Balance is very well written and well plotted for a Vietnam War thriller. The title was a puzzler to me until angels started showing up. Elements of the religious and the supernatural play a huge role, far more so than a reader might expect.

The angels appear when needed to pull characters out of certain-death situations. They do their angelic work with a minimum of angelic fuss. At first, I was a bit troubled by the angels, but found myself getting used to them in short order. The author and the main character often ponder the ineffable—which I wound up doing myself.

There also are lots of references to classical scholarship, and it helps if you are familiar with enough Greek and Latin stories to understand the importance of the main character’s name, Troy Leonidas. If not, I recommend looking them up in a classical dictionary.

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Michael Ganas

The novel is rich with references to Sgt. York, John Wayne, shit burning, Agent Orange, Tarzan, Green Berets, the Old West, wagon trains, Indians, pot use, and tons of other Vietnam War generation era popular-culture terms.

I recommend Angels in the Balance highly to those hungry for a helicopter-centered Vietnam War thriller with a different twist on the subject.

This book is twisted up like a Belgian pastry.

–David Willson

The Deserter by Nelson DeMille & Alex DeMille

The Deserter (Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle; $49.99, audiobook) is the first novel by Nelson and Alex DeMille, a father and son team of writers. The father (Nelson) has written many best-selling thrillers, several of which deal with the Vietnam War. This one is little different than his previous novels. The Deserter features two new DeMille characters: Scott Brodie and Maggie Taylor.

The plot is a familiar one. The two protagonists journey to the heart of darkness—this time in Venezuela—in search of a bad guy, Former Army Delta Force Capt. Kyle Mercer, who has committed evil acts. Mercer has been spotted in Caracas in a part of the city that is off  limits to all but the worst criminals.

The team must enter this section of the city and somehow convince Capt. Mercer to return with them to civilization for trial and punishment. Brodie is suspicious of his partner, primarily because he thinks she’s a secret CIA operative.

The team goes up river in a boat which they steal, and which is hardly dependable. When Mercer has been captured, things go wrong, which is what this reader expected.

The novel is filled with the usual hairpin plot twists and black humor that I expect from a thriller from Nelson DeMille, who served a Vietnam War tour of duty as a 1st Cavalry Division LT. It is impossible to discern which portions of the novel were written by father and which by the son. Does that really matter?  Not to me.

There is much talk of black ops, winning hearts and minds, and raising rhubarb. Even Rambo gets a mention. Also being in “a world of shit.” The Vietnam War comes up several times, as does the Mekong Delta, “beans, bandages and bullets,” and Vietnam veterans.

I found the novel to be involving and fun to read. It was a bit on the long side, but for fans of DeMille that is a good thing.

The book’s page on Nelson DeMille’s website is nelsondemille.net/books/the-deserter

–David Willson

 

 

 

 

 

Legacy of War by Ed Marohn

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Vietnam War veteran Ed Marohn’s novel, Legacy of War (BookBaby,  340 pp. $16.95, paper), is a military thriller that delivers all the goods.

The protagonist, John Moore, is an overworked psychologist who has never gotten over the death of his wife from cancer. His bouts with depression and nightmares relating to his combat experiences in the Vietnam War have lead to his professional decision not to accept any patients who are veterans. That is, until now.

Dealing with a new client ends up with Moore learning a tale of the CIA’s war-time Phoenix Program gone wrong and a covered-up massacre, which gets him involved in a story of revenge—and a search for buried gold. Moore ends up grudgingly accepting an unofficial CIA invitation to return to Vietnam and help untangle a mind-bending mess. Before long, the hero says to himself, “This stuff sounds like a spy novel.”

He’s also aware that no one is telling him the complete story about anything. But he has his own reasons for getting involved.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam needs unofficial assistance from the CIA at the same time the CIA needs hush-hush help from the Vietnamese. It turns out that the reasons for Moore being pulled into this secretive, dangerous mess go back more than thirty years. Some characters are trying to forget things they remember; others are trying to remember things they’ve forgotten.

The first half of the book is filled with conversations and explanations, but once the story gets going, it moves with the speed of a piano falling out of a thirteen-story window. At almost exactly the halfway point Moore is back on the “ancient soil of Nam,” wearing a .45 caliber pistol in a shoulder holster. Before long, he’s once again “humping through the Vietnamese boonies.”

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Ed Marohn

References to the Vietnam War are sprinkled throughout the book, as when Moore walks down a hall in an apartment building and notes that it resembles “a dark tunnel with a light at the end.” The apartment he’s looking for is “number ten.” A suicide note left by a Vietnam War vet says, in part, “It don’t mean a fucking thing.”

Notable characters include Moore’s female associate, a buddy he’s stayed close with since they served together in 1969 and 1970, and a female member of the Vietnamese National Police.

You want beautiful women, you got it. You want shootouts, you got it.

Most of the action takes place over a fifty-day period in late 2002, early 2003. More than one surprise makes this one well worth sticking around to the end for.

Ed Marohn served with the 25th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division in the Vietnam War. His website is writingsfromed.com

–Bill McCloud