Monday, October 17, 2011

MIA Hunter #3: Hanoi Deathgrip

MIA Hunter #3: Hanoi Deathgrip, by Jack Buchanan
July, 1985 Jove Books

Joe R. Landsdale emerges as "Jack Buchanan," and I don't want to say anything negative about Mike Newton's previous two installments, as I think Newton is a fine writer, but Landsdale takes the MIA Hunter series to a whole new level. But then, this might not be so much Landsdale's talent as just more confirmation of my theory that the only way to keep the stale concept of this series fresh is to bring in a new writer every few volumes. Because, despite the novel touches, the genre-spoofery and fun dialog, Hanoi Deathgrip basically retreads the plots of those previous two volumes.

Our hero Mark Stone is hired by attractive combat reporter Jackie Winslow, who has gotten confirmation that her father, a medic in 'Nam, has been spotted in a POW camp. Major Winslow's name has been clouded in the past decades; the US Government claimed he turned sides in the final days of the war. Hence Jackie goes to Stone as the last man who can help her.

In a scene out of a hardboiled novel, the gorgeous blonde pleads her case to Stone, the private eye (his day job), and the sparks fly. However Stone has a steady fling, who later proves her worth in a car chase as government stooges chase after them. This sequence has definite ramifications on the series as a whole, as by the end Stone must give up his private eye cover and his girlfriend must go into hiding, for now the CIA will certainly be after them.

But all that has to wait, as Stone and his MIA-hunting comrades Terrance Loughlin and Hog Wiley go to Laos to meet up with their native fighters and from there sneak into 'Nam. Landsdale really shines when it comes to Wiley; Landsale, like the character, is a Texan, and so references several East Texan locales throughout the novel. And with Hog Landsale spoofs the gung-ho characters of the series; we learn that Hog wears a Mickey Mouse watch and has a rubber ducky in his bathtub back home. Landsale even manages to bring to life the cipher that is Loughlin, but has a hard time of it; later he even has Jackie mention something along the lines that Loughlin is too distant. It makes one wonder why they just don't kill the character off.

Another highpoint in the novel is Thene Khan, a Laotian fighter who works with Stone and team. Determined to kill as many commies as he can, Thene is a sprite little bastard who speaks in a patois of curses and '50s slang: "We're gonna kill them Commie sum'bitches, by golly." And Jackie Winslow is an interesting character; as expected, she shows up in Laos, having orchestrated her own journey into the jungle, and demands that she go along with Stone and his team. And she proves herself well in battle, having covered combat stories around the globe and picking up battle skills along the way. But Landsdale manages to keep it all grounded; it's not like she's doing flips in the air while firing two pistols at once or anything.

Like the previous novels, we have the occasional chapters that hop over to the POW's point of view, and for once these scenes are entertaining. Major Winslow, due to his smart mouth, has found himself in the camp of one sadistic bastard. This guy likes to call in his equally-sadistic brother, a Bolo Yeung-type who likes to kill cowardly soldiers for sport. Landsdale piles on the horrific imagery in these sections, with the gruesome treatment of a few US prisoners, including one sequence where a man's stomach is sliced open and a snake is placed inside him before he's sewn back up. (Later it gets even more OTT when Winslow must rip open the corpse and pull out the metal wire that was used to slice up the man's guts.)

Again, it all follows the same template: Stone and team arrive in the jungle, meet their assistants, get into a few running battles with Pathet Lao and etc, finally find the camp, free the prisoners and then unleash hell on the Vietnamese, then endure more running battles as they make their way to safety. And like the previous novels the latter half degenerates into a nonstop battle, but Landsdale excels throughout, particularly in an endless but enjoyable scene where Hog faces off against the camp commandant's hulking brother.

Throughout Landsale writes with flair, both paying tribute to and spoofing the genre. It's a fine balance and it reminds me of the style of another men's adventure writer who went on to mainstream success (and another "Joe" to boot): Joe Haldeman, in his Attar #2.


Cullen Gallagher said...

I have this one at home, but I want to go in order with the MIA Hunter series. After reading your review, I need to adjust my To Be Read pile to put it closer to the top!

Joe Kenney said...

Cullen, thanks for the post. I know what you mean about reading a series in order, but MIA Hunter is one case where continuity doesn't really factor in. Only the LA-based stuff with Stone and his PI business runs as a subplot through the books, and that only takes up about 5% of the storyline. And again, each novel has been pretty much the SAME novel so far. So really it could go either way -- you could read the series in order or hopscotch through, and I don't think it would make much difference.

jvdsteen said...

Didn't know Joe wrote one of these. He's a fine writer so it shouldn't be a surprise this one was good as well.

Anonymous said...


Great recap Joe! (As always I shoud add).

That 3rd installment was way better than the 2nd (basically, nothing happens in Cambodian Hellhole for about 60/70 pages, quite embarassing for a 165 pages book!).

Hanoi Deathgrip lived up to my expectations, as the 1st MIA Hunter did.

I'm surprised though you didn't mention the awesome chopper fight occuring near the end.
It was mind-blowing, Landsdale definitely delivered on this part, 2 Hueys facing off... wow!

It was a bit over the top though when the vietnamese pilot tried to mangle Hog's legs with the rotor blades!!!

Talking about OTT stuff, that snake part was just gruesome and sickening.
Opening a guy's stomach and ushering a snake in it... I was disturbed, so much so I considered skipping this chapter but thought better of it.

I also wanted to say that so far I've been a tad frustrated by the way the authors end the first 3 books.
I mean it always kind of stops abruptly, the guys reach the thailand border or any kind of safe place, we do understand they're "out of the woods" and well that's pretty much it.

It would've been enthralling to read about the long-awaited stateside return of those MIA, when they touch down on US soil for the 1st time since their captivity, when they reunite with their loved ones and so on.

I guess 100 more pages would've been necessary in thise case and it just didn't fit with the original scheme of an action-oriented novel.

Joe Kenney said...

Julien, thanks a lot for the comment. So far this is still my favorite volume of the MIA Hunter series, but I've still got several more volumes to go. I've since found out from Stephen Mertz that this one was a 50/50 collaboration, with Lansdale writing the first half and then turning it over to Mertz, who wrote the rest.

You are correct, I did neglect to mention that OTT finale with the dueling Hueys. You also bring up a great point of how nice it would be to see these POWs reunited with their families in the States. I also wish there was a little more continuity in the books, but for the most part each volume is a standalone adventure.

Anyway I'm glad you are enjoying this series. I know you like 'Nam fiction, so I thought I'd let you know I will be posting reviews for a few Vietnam War action paperbacks here in the next few weeks.