Thursday, December 26, 2013

Z-Comm #3: MIA

Z-Comm #3: MIA, by Kyle Maning
No month stated, 1989  Leisure Books

If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night and asked yourself, “Hey, what if David Alexander had written a volume of MIA Hunter??”, then wonder no more, as this third installment of Z-Comm answers that very question. Unexpectedly though in MIA Alexander (once again posing as “Kyle Maning”) cuts back on the crazed tone of the previous two books of the series and attempts to craft a more restrained narrative.

In fact, action is sporadic for the first half of the novel, and when it does occur it lacks the OTT spirit typical of Alexander’s ‘80s work. It came to me that this is because the subject of MIA is a bit more personal to Alexander, who apparently was a soldier in Vietnam. The novel is filled with reflections on the war and its effects on the soldiers who fought in it, to the extent that Alexander’s patented action onslaught is for the most part subdued.

Already on the job in Bangkok, Z-Comm leader Logan Cage gets in a running battle with some Asian goons; after blowing a few away Cage discovers the goons have been sent here by General Quan, a drug kingpin who arranged the meeting in the first place. Quan has killed a competitor in the drug business as a sign of good faith – it was said competitor Cage was here to eliminate. And to further get in the good graces of the US, Quan provides Cage with intel on a possible MIA camp in Laos.

Cage takes the intel back to the CIA, who decides at great length to send someone in…but who? Uh, Z-Comm..the guys who brought in the intel in the first place! To be honest, this bit sort of lost me, especially when Alexander goes on to deliver the antagonist of the piece – the CIA! Yes, the organization that decides to fund this MIA rescue is in fact the same organization that’s trying to keep the existence of the MIAs under wraps.

Rather than the entire company it’s really just the Laos faction that’s apparently behind the MIA conspiracy, as the spooks are getting rich off the heroin trade, and the American POWs are used as slave labor! Bonham is the name of the Laos CIA chief, and at length it develops that he’s set up Z-Comm as they go into the jungle to first determine if the MIA camp exists, and if so, to free the POWs.

The five-person Z-Comm force heads into the bush, and this time out they’re even less explored than before. I think Domino, the Smurfette of the group, gets maybe two lines of dialog. But as Alexander often reminds us, all of the team save Domino are ‘Nam vets, and thus feel as if they are “returning home” now that they’re back in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The most colorful character isn’t even in Z-Comm, a former ‘Nam pilot named Moondog who now makes his living flying contraband.

A father-son pair of Montagnard guides lead Z-Comm into Laos, taking them to the suspected camp. But of course it’s empty, and it’s all a setup, Vietnamese soldiers ambushing them. Cage is shot in the thigh and taken captive and Moondog is blown up, along with his Huey. Now Z-Comm is alone in the jungle and their leader himself has become a POW.

Alexander continues to hold off on the action blitz as Z-Comm splits into two groups, one to rescue Cage and the POWs (who are being held in the Long Dragon Prison Camp in Vietnam, under the sadistic command of Colonel Vinh), the other to commandeer a helicopter for escape. Meanwhile Cage recuperates from his wound and runs afoul of Vinh, who we learn gets off on having his American prisoners beaten.

When Alexander does deliver action scenes, they lack the crazed nature of his other books – in other words, no "vicious prick to Moby Dick" sort of stuff. That’s not to say a lot of Vietnamese soldiers don’t get shot to hell or blown up real good, and as expected Alexander doles out his customary gore, but it’s just a lot more restrained. In fact the lurid element is pretty much missing – let’s all recall the sadistic excesses of Swastika and Killpoint, with the rape-and-pillage sequence in the first and the terrorist-night-on-the-town in the second. There’s nothing remotely like that in MIA.

Instead, Alexander keeps forestalling the climatic action scene, with lots of repetitive moments of the members of Z-Comm gearing themselves up to do this or that. For example, when Bear and Domino attempt to steal a helicopter from a Vietnamese fort, we have several moments where each of them will think to themselves how the mission could quickly go to hell if either of them were to screw up or if one minor thing were to go wrong. It all just comes off like page-filling, and given the undue length of MIA I’m betting that’s exactly what it is.

And sadly after all of the stalling the climatic battle itself doesn’t deliver the OTT David Alexander action we expect. The POWs, ie the entire reason behind the novel, are given short shrift; Cage sees them while a prisoner at Long Dragon camp, but they have zip to do with the narrative, other than cursory mentions during the final battle of picking up weapons and blasting away at their former captors. Even Bonham’s comeuppance is anticlimatic, with Cage beating the CIA chief to a pulp instead of killing him in some inventive way.

All in all, MIA was pretty standard so far as men’s adventure novels go, and not up to the crazed heights of its predecessors. Here’s hoping the next (and final) installment picks things up.

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