Gold in the Coffins by Dominic Certo and Len Harac

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Dominic Certo’s highly praised first novel, The Valor of Francesco D’Amini, was published in 1979. So it has been a long wait for his next one, Gold in the Coffins (Harmita Press, 268 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle).

Certo served with the 7th Marines in Vietnam.  Co-author Len Harac is “a frequent participant in military-style tactical training programs.”

A terse blurb on the back cover accurately sums up this well-written thriller. “Gold in the Coffins follows the story of a tight band of retired Marines who bonded during a bloody tour of duty in Vietnam, only to find themselves facing a darker enemy back home, the demons of Wall Street.”

The hero, Donnie DeAngelo, enters into a “diabolical venture” with a Wall Street power broker who plans to force DeAngelo into bankruptcy and then loot his company and leave him and his friends with nothing. This world of IPOs and reverse mergers is a mystery to me, but the authors handle the ins and outs of it deftly, making it seem as evil as I always suspected it was.

This system was the one that Donnie and his buddies thought they had fought to protect, but they find that it isn’t set up to protect them. It is mentioned more than once that these Marines did not get heroic welcomes when they returned home. Mention is also made of “all the Napalm, Tear Gas, Agent Orange and explosives” they were exposed to and the possibility that they might have wrecked their brains.

Donnie DeAngelo was a Navy Corpsman who served with the Marines in Vietnam. The loyalty and tight teamwork that was built then is brought in play back home to save the day. I am not going to give away the ending, but I will say that evil Wall Street is defeated in a way that I only wish could happen in real life more often.

The VA is name-checked several times and not in a flattering manner.  John Wayne is also discussed. To wit: “John Wayne never taught us how to deal with losing our amigos, just how to walk tall and kick ass. I wonder why they leave that part out of the movie scripts?”

This is a thoughtful and exciting thriller with lots of Vietnam War references. The flashbacks to the war are the strongest parts of the book.  I’d like to see another war novel from Certo, but until then, this book will do just fine.  I highly recommend it.

Certo’s website is http://dominiccerto.com

—David Willson

Loss of Innocence by Stephen Cone

Stephen Cone presents the entire history of his company’s efforts in Vietnam in Loss of Innocence: A History of Hotel Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in Vietnam (FriesenPress, 373 pp, $28.99, hardcover; $19.99 paper). The 7th Marines fought against well-armed VC and NVA, mostly in the northern, coastal mountains of I Corps.

Stay with Cone and, if you were in the Army, you’ll learn just how good you had it. These guys were chewed up again and again from 1965 through their last days in country in 1970.

But staying with Cone is the problem. He reports every action, every movement of Hotel Company. While this can only have resulted from obsessive research, the details of every injury from a punji stake, every friendly fire incident resulting in a wound—even every death—makes it difficult for the reader to get a sense of the larger picture.

Many pages go by in the bare-bones style of after-action reports. Cone’s portrait is an effective one of a tough group of men who endured untold suffering, but went in circles, encountering the same enemy, receiving the same wounds. Of course, this could be a metaphor for the entire war.

Stephen Cone

An exception: Cone had no use for the ARVN units the 7th Marines often maneuvered with. He shows how ARVN ineffectiveness and ARVN cowardice often got Marines killed. Even on the ARVN question, however, Cone just reports; he doesn’t really opine.

There’s also a lot of Semper Fi here. Cone is reluctant to say anything negative about fellow Marines. In fact, he’s reluctant to say much of anything about individuals. Along with his research, the backbone of his history is the testimony of his fellow Marines, but he offers few anecdotes, and very little dialogue. Personalities seldom emerge.

Sometimes, he offers a gem of a detail, such as his account of a Marine who, lacking stationery, tore off the top of a C-ration box, wrote his letter there, and scribbled “Free” in the corner.

Fairly often, going a long way toward saving his book, Cone recalls a humorous incident. For instance, there’s the platoon, done in with thirst, awaiting a delivery of water. Instead, a helicopter hovers and drops one small box. What is it? Some Marine calls out: a box of cigars for the commander.

Cone doesn’t claim to be a professional writer; instead he offers up his reliability as a historian. His book is fine source material for other writers, and it seems to be rigorously truthful. But it’s pretty dry for anyone except perhaps Marines from the Seventh. Cone has written them a love letter.

—John Mort