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

Red, White & Blues, Book Two by L.V. Sage

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L.V. Sage’s massive novel, Red, White & Blues, Book Two (Self, 667 pp. $20,97, paper;  $2.99, Kindle) 9s the second in a proposed trilogy. Book One was published in 2013. This one is self-contained and can be enjoyed thoroughly without having read the first volume.

Most of the story takes place in California during the 1980s. The characters are members of the Souls of Liberty motorcycle club, along with people who come into contact with them. In the first few chapters it seems like we are being introduced to a bazillion characters who’d be difficult to keep track of, but that aspect of the novel ends up being manageable. Those early chapters also fill in all the backstories we need to know.

The Souls of Liberty members believe in loyalty no matter what. Several are Vietnam War veterans and they seem to be especially respected for having taken part in the war. There’s a lot of PTSD in evidence. The veterans struggle to keep their “absolute worst secrets from Vietnam” from being revealed, Sage writes, while the war “still creeps in” every day. Every death they deal with in the eighties causes them to recall a similar one they encountered in the war in Vietnam.

They remember the sting of returning to “an ungrateful country,” having fought in a war that America lost, and they wish they could just forget about it. Their philosophy is: Some live and some die, but you just keep moving forward.

L.V. Sage can certainly write. She has created a fast-moving story with lots of sex and violence. There’s murder, suicide, infidelity, medical struggles, and divorce. The novel is basically a highly detailed soap-opera, but it works. There’s an especially well-written scene in which two veterans see the Platoon together in a theater when it first comes out.

Club members express a greater sense of loyalty to other members than they do to their wives or girlfriends. They do not tolerate their women talking disrespectfully to them in front of their brothers. One character notes that “women are the biggest threats to any club.” Most of the club members are fathers especially proud of having sons.

Club unity becomes threatened by the growing popularity of crack cocaine. The older members look at it as a dangerous drug. There are also concerns about rival clubs.

The club loves to throw big family outings, usually patriotic events. The Fourth of July celebration is the main favorite, even though the fireworks make some of the veterans uncomfortable. Halloween also is big, and the bikers rarely miss celebrating big wedding and birthday parties.

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L. V. Sage

Underlying everything, though, is the war’s lasting effects. As one female character puts it: “War does terrible things to men. Every man I know that went is damaged now.” A main character bemoans the idea that his time in Vietnam left “a permanent scar on his soul.”

You probably won’t want to join this motorcycle club, but you’ll have a blast reading about all of their exploits.

–Bill McCloud

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

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

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.