Thursday, April 21, 2016

MIA Hunter #7: Saigon Slaughter

MIA Hunter #7: Saigon Slaughter, by Jack Buchanan
August, 1987  Jove Books

Stephen Mertz and Joe Lansdale team for up a third and final time on the MIA Hunter series, which now features series protagonist’s name “Stone” as part of the title. Mertz and Lansdale last collaborated on #4: Mountain Massacre, and like that one Saigon Slaughter is for the most part about 80% action with around 20% of character and plot development. It’s enjoyable but lacks the charm of their first collaboration, #3: Hanoi Deathgrip, which is still my favorite volume.

Hero Mark Stone is already in the ‘Nam when the novel opens, accompanied as ever by erstwhile companions Hog Wiley and Terrance Loughlin. A new character is introduced this volume, though it’s doubtful he’ll become a regular (MIA Hunter lacks much continuity): United States Senator Jerome Harber, who has come to Ho Chi Minh City as part of a delegation looking into the truth behind reported American POWs still in Vietnam. Harber is a believer and has made contact with Stone; as the novel opens Stone sneaks into Harber’s hotel room to tell him he’s going to prove his case that POWs exist.

Stone’s here for three American POWs in particular, though the novel features an arbitrary bit from Stone’s perspective where he reflects on the limited lifespan of his MIA-hunting duties. Once again Stone suspects that eventually he will have to pan out into other aspects of global ass-kicking, no doubt sign from editor Mertz that the series will gradually lose focus on the MIA angle and become more of a typical ‘80s action pulp. I’m looking forward to these later books as the concept behind this series is pretty limited, especially when as with the case with Saigon Slaughter the “plots” are mostly comprised of endless battle sequences.

We also get a rare moment of continuity; Stone briefly reflects on the aftermath of the previous volume, in particular the onetime-fiance he rescued in the course of that novel, and how her presence has thrown his love life into chaos. But nothing else is made of this and indeed the fiance isn’t even named. As usual though much more focus is placed on the mission at hand; when we meet Stone he’s already in ‘Nam and he stays here for the duration, dodging bullets and blowing away Vietnamese soldiers. There’s no time for romance, though Saigon Slaughter features the presence of the best female character in the series yet: Mai, “a fine specimen of Oriental womanhood” who is “small but big-breasted” and a kick-ass commando to boot.

Mai, only in her twenties but a veteran freedomfighter in her native Vietnam, serves as Stone’s main contact in the novel. She meets him in the jungle in a sequence of course reminiscent of Rambo: First Blood Part II and proves her worth on the battlefied…again and again, that is, given the crushing onlsaught of action in Saigon Slaughter. Unlike Co in Rambo, Mai actually survives the tale, and the authors capably build a growing rapport between her and Stone, to the point that by novel’s end Stone figures he and Mai will be getting busy posthaste, even though he knows he’ll never see her again. Why not? Mai is a welcome addition and should have become a series regular.

Mertz went on to pen the two-part series Tunnel Rats, which makes it interesting that Stone’s brief tunnel rat background in the war is given a lot of focus here. When Stone and comrades aren’t blitzing VC they’re burrowing beneath the ground in close-quarter tunnels, one of the few things that Hog Wiley fears. Once again the big Texan is given the spotlight, and no doubt these sequences are written by fellow Texan Lansdale, with Hog’s wild background in East Texas often commented upon. And, as in the previous volumes these two co-wrote, the bickering and banter between Hog and cipher-like Loughlin comes fast and furious. Some of it is funny, but some of it gets to be grating.

But really the endless action is the star of the show. Immediately after meeting Mai (who initially shows up in a “Ninja-type mask”) in the jungle night and hooking up with her branch of freedom fighters, Stone et al are caught up in an ambush that is just the first of many, many such action scenes to follow. The gore is also more prevalent this time out, with copious descriptions of heads juicily exploding and guts bursting out. I think Stone and team kill about a zillion Vietnamese soldiers in this one, and once again you have to wonder why they weren’t so lethal in the actual war itself! Wait, I know – it was those goddamn politicians who kept holding them back!!

Mai is the lone survivor of her team of insurgents after this opening battle (which goes on for about 40 pages), and her dead leader was the only one who knew where the camp with the American POWs is located. But there’s another option: depraved General Le, a Vietnamese official who is meeting with Senator Harber’s delegation. Le knows exactly where the camp is, and given his penchant for a new woman every night, Mai dresses herself up in Western clothing with lots of makeup, just like Le likes ‘em. With General Le the MIA Hunter gets its first taste of sleaze, even if it’s relatively brief and also nondescript – there isn’t a single sex scene in the novel. But Le likes to suffocate women while he screws them, we learn, and indeed plans to do this to sexy Mai.

Here’s where we learn about Mai’s “big breasts,” as she goes to Le’s fortress dressed like a veritable Asian Daisy Duke. Stone, using “Ninja suction cups,” scales the fortress and slips in, stopping the festivities before they can start; Le scrawls down the camp location and Stone promptly blows him away. After this we get, you’ll be surprised to know, yet another action scene. This one too keeps going like a regular Duracell Bunny. But now they know that the camp is near Saigon, aka Ho chi Minh, and the team heads deep into the jungle. We get another long and arbitary action scene as they encounter enemy forces, a scene which sees Hog hiding up in a tree at one point and gunning men down. Once again Hog is practically a force of nature, loving the blood and chaos of constant battle. 

The tunnel rat stuff continues when the anti-communist leader of the village near the POW camp reveals that old tunnels run beneath the place, but the one beneath the actual prison needs to be finished. Stone has him draft a ton of “University aged” kids to help in the all-night dig, which leads us into the homestretch battle, another one that goes on for around 30 or so pages. Stone frees the three bedraggled American POWs without much fuss, and then gets back to the task of killing hordes of Vietnamese. The authors inject a bit more variety in this one, from bulldozers used as battering rams to an escape via chopper, Loughlin piloting it and Hog blasting away with an M-60. We even get a ‘copter chase, with Loughlin successfully psyching out the pursuer so that he flies into a truck.

Saigon Slaughter culminates in a scene suspiciously similar to the finale of Missing In Action, as Stone et al fly their appropriated helicopter right to the building in Laos where Senator Harber’s delegation is meeting with the Vietnamese. Stone pulls out the three corpse-like American prisoners and hands them over to Harber in view of God and everyone so there can no longer be any question that the Vietnamese are indeed still harboring American prisoners.

And that’s that – a weary Stone hops back in the helicopter and they take off before there can be anymore fireworks. As mentioned, here Stone puts his arms around the lovely Mai and figures he and she are about to get close, but really he’s more concerned with how he’s going to sneak out of the country. Not that it much matters, as I assume by the next volume Stone will already be on his next mission when we meet him and the events of Saigon Slaughter will be completely forgotten.

I think I can spot the line of demarcation between the two authors: Lansdale perhaps is responsible for the sardonic vibe and the venmous Hog-Loughlin banter, with Mertz mostly responsible for the action and definitely responsible for the Don Pendleton-esque narratorial asides about Stone’s bad-assery. One can clearly see Mertz’s background with Pendleton thanks to lines like “Yeah, Stone was something.” Much of it is so similar to material in Pendleton’s Executioner novels that it could be an excerpt. But the Pendleton vibe is strong, especially in random moments where Mertz will describe the green hell of the jungle, or when he will focus on Stone’s deadfast resolve to see his mission through, even if he dies in the attempt.


Stephen Mertz said...

I always enjoy your reviews, Joe, even when you dissect something I worked on. Ah, the good old days when the body count was higher than the characters' IQs. Actually, ol' Mark, tea bag and the inimitable Hog Wiley are back, available (along with the 2 other Mertz/Lansdale collabs) in ebook format for a mere $2.99 from the usual suspect.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comment, Stephen, glad you enjoyed the review!

Also I forgot to post a link to that recent interview with you -- everyone, you can read a great interview with Stephen here.