Monday, June 6, 2011
MIA Hunter #1
MIA Hunter #1, by Jack Buchanan
January, 1985 Jove Books
I'm really taking a trip down memory lane, here -- as a kid I actually collected this series as it came out. I didn't have all 17 volumes,* but I had several of the earlier installments. The thing is, I don't think I ever read any of them; I was more into the gun-porn, terrorist-wasting world of Gold Eagle Books.
But man -- talk about some savy marketing! Cashing in on the mid-'80s "POW" boom (ie Chuck Norris's Missing In Action and Stallone's Rambo II), the MIA Hunter series is like an '80s action movie on paper. It's as if it was co-published by Canon Films or something. These days the series is most known for the involvement of bestselling author Joe R. Landsdale, who was one of the writers serving as "Jack Buchanan." Bill Crider also delivered a few volumes. Our pal Chet Cunningham even wrote a volume.
It's my understanding though that the main writer behind the series (as well as the plotter for each volume) was Stephen Mertz. This initial installment was written by Mike Newton, who like Mertz got his start as a sort of understudy with Don Pendleton. Newton also wrote the second volume of this series, as well as a hundred or so other men's adventure novels, including countless ones for the Gold Eagle stable, not to mention a how-to book on the craft.
Mark Stone is the titular character, a 35 year-old Vietnam vet who is very much in the mold of The Penetrator. Like Mark Hardin, Stone was known for infiltrating VC defenses and really kicked some shit during the war. Hell, the guys even have the same first name. Only Stone lacks the more pulpish charm of Hardin: he has no eccentric old scientist funding his campaigns nor an American Indian training him in metaphysical combat. Instead, Stone is a sort of private eye who uses the money from his work to fund his "second job:" namely, rescuing POWs.
Stone has two comrades in this: Hog Wiley, a mountain of a man who also served in 'Nam; Stone thinks of him as "the ugliest man he has ever known." A grizzled bulk who moves faster than his girth would imply, Hog gets off on violent action. I realized late in the book that if this novel had been published a decade earlier, Hog probably would've been the protagonist. The third member of the team is Terrance Loughlin, and a less-developed character you will never meet. Seriously, Loughlin says like four lines in the entire novel. A British commando who had to leave the SAS when his identity was exposed, Loughlin serves as the explosives expert, but generally just sits around on the periphery. You can tell Newton is uncertain what to do with him; in Loughlin's introduction he writes that the guy is "the British version of Mark Stone," and has done with it.
This first volume introduces us to Stone's world and hints at future developments. Stone is watched by the CIA and FBI and other government agencies; there's a fun scene early on where some government stooges harass him for his unsanctioned raids in Vietnam. Stone's defense is that he's just a private citizen visiting a foreign country. But Stone is known in underground channels as the go-to guy for POW extraction. He doesn't charge for his missions other than expenses for gear and etc. This time out he's contacted by a woman who has learned through various connections that her husband, missing for 15 years, might still be alive, and imprisoned in a Vietnamese camp. After verifying the evidence and getting a location, Stone takes the mission.
I actually enjoyed the second half of the novel best. Newton does a great job of bringing to life the Far East. There's a nicely-done scene where Stone meets his weapons supplier in an incense-filled temple, and Newton really captures the otherworldly air of the place. This leads to an action scene: the supplier stores his weapons in his home, and when they go there for them the team finds the place under attack. After fending off the killers and saving the supplier's pretty daughter, Stone goes on with the mission. I'm assuming this development will play out in later installments -- I mean, it's never even explained who the attackers were -- but we'll see.
Newton continues to build up the tension as Stone and his team work their way into the jungle and across the border. There's the obligatory fight scene with a sampan and PTO boats as Stone and his men are nearly caught by soldiers. At length they find the POW camp, which contains three badly-wounded and malnourished US soldiers. Stone attempts a soft probe of the site, but as expected the shit hits the fan and a huge battle ensues. A nice bit is that one of the freed POWs is a former Green Beret and goes wild with a captured AK-47, blasting apart his captors.
The only problem I had with this novel is the action onslaught of the final third. I'm not saying it falls to Death Merchant depths, but it comes close. We have the big battle in the POW camp, followed immediately by another as Stone and his team escape through the jungle and come upon a village which is being attacked by bandits. These guys have nothing to do with anything but Stone and his men decide to attack them, which is nice given that they're saving the villagers and all, but it comes off as too much too soon; we just read a big action scene a few pages ago. But then there's a third big action sequence immediately thereafter: after defeating the bandits, Stone is informed by the villagers that a contingent of Pathet Lao soldiers are on the way, as well as a tracking squad of Vietnamese soldiers who survived Stone's raid on the POW camp. So yet another big action scene takes place here, with everyone fighting everyone.
I know, there's nothing like complaining about too much action in an action novel. But the problem is the action is so samey. There are too many repetitive scenes of Stone giving himself pep talks, gearing himself up for action, and when it all goes down pretty much the same descriptive phrases are used throughout. I'm not sure how many times I read about a "headless corpse" falling down after a CAR-15 blast. Newton is good in that he doesn't POV-hop; when he gets into the perspective of a character he stays locked in, but the problem is all the characters sound the same. Even the freed POW Green Beret gives himself pretty much the same pep talks as Stone. The only flash of color here is Hog Wiley, who as mentioned really enjoys the thrill of combat.
Anyway, a strong first half that gets off the rails a bit with too many back-to-back action scenes in the last half. But it was still an enjoyable ride, not to mention a quick read: somehow I read this novel in one day, something I haven't done in a long time. In my usual fit of OCD I've acquired the entire series, so I'll soon be dipping back into the POW-freeing world of Mark Stone.
*Technically the series lasted 16 volumes, but there was an un-numbered volume, simply titled Stone: MIA Hunter, which came between volumes #6 and #7. This un-numbered volume is not to be confused with MIA Hunter #1, even though some online booksellers list it as such.