R. Cyril West was in elementary school during the Vietnam War. His novel, The Thin Wall (Molon Labe Books, 336 pp., $12.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), takes place at the height of the war in 1968. It is set in Mersk in Bohemia in the former nation of Czechoslovakia during he time when the Russians crossed the frontier and took over the country. This time of uproar is used as a cover by the main villain of the book, Colonel Gregori Dal, to abduct an American Vietnam War POW and use him for his own ends.
Gunnery Sergeant Russell Edward Johnston, a red-haired American captured by the Viet Cong, was supposed to be executed and buried in an unmarked grave deep in the Bohemian forest. That’s what the Kremlin ordered.
But Dal had been recruited by a splinter KBG group to smuggle him to East Germany and then to Cuba where Johnston would become “a prized trophy for Castro.” I have no idea why he would be a trophy—and West never tells us.
The author uses Johnston as a sort of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin to sustain the story and keep the novel’s plot moving along.
This may sound like another piece of fictional POW claptrap, but this book is not. It is a literate and literary novel. Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, Franz Kafka, and other great writers are referenced. Colonel Dal burns some of their books in a public fountain. Elvis and Beatles LPs are also destroyed.
There is a large cast of well-developed characters and the author has provided a useful guide to them in the front of the book. There is a beautiful, young single mother the colonel becomes fixated on. She also is the object of attention from a doctor, an undercover spy long forgotten by his handlers. There is even a politically incorrect “village idiot” who is much more than comic relief.
Johnston may appear be just a plot device, but his back story is explained so that when bad things happen we feel badly for him. “He was on his second tour,” West writes, “just three months from leaving ‘Nam when it happened. Johnston and two other Marines. They were on a patrol when they came under heavy fire and were separated from their platoon.”
The men eventually fell into the hands of Russian intelligence agents who decide to hand them over to Soviet psychologists to be analyzed and then used as human guinea pigs in science experiments.
I enjoyed this novel. I even bought into some of the Cold War paranoia. The tragedy of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia is well-demonstrated in this book, which is a POW thriller only on its surface.
There is a lot more going on in this well-written book. I recommend it.
The author’s website is www.rcyrilwest.com