Monday, June 30, 2014

Stone: MIA Hunter

Stone: MIA Hunter, by Jack Buchanan
February, 1987  Jove Books

Some online booksellers mistakenly list this installment of the MIA Hunter series as the first volume, but in fact it falls between the sixth and seventh volumes. Also, this is a double-length tale, coming in at 261 pages, all courtesy our old friend Chet Cunningham, who here turns in his second and final contribution to the series. Rather than filling all those pages with one epic plot, Cunningham instead tells four separate storylines, but even so Stone: MIA Hunter happens to be one of my favorite volumes yet.

The first storyline opens with Mark Stone and his companions Hog Wiley and Terrance Loughlin busting a few POWs out of a camp in ‘Nam; this is a taut, action-packed sequence. Cunningham (who names one of the POWs after himself) gives most narrative time to Commander Farley Anderson, who can’t believe he’s finally free, let alone that it’s 1987. As the group struggles across jungle terrain, desperate to get over the border, they are attacked by unseen gunmen, who mercilessly take out Stone’s Laotian guides. This turns out to be minions of CIA goon Alan Coleman, the series’ recurring villain; he arrives via helicopter and demands Stone and the POWs get onboard.

This leads to the second storyline, as Stone, Hog, and Loughlin are arraigned in Federal court in Los Angeles on trumped-up charges. As a result Stone’s private investigator license is stripped (bet you forgot that’s his day job, didn’t you??) and it looks like the three of them may do some serious time. Hog and Louglin heed Stone’s advice and take off. Stone meanwhile spends some quality time with his girlfriend, Carol Jenner, who we are informed now lives in DC, working for the Defense Department. Funny, because the last we saw her, back in #3: Hanoi Deathgrip, she was on the run from various government agencies!

Stone is informed that this court deal could take a few weeks. Do you think he just takes it easy for a while? Hell, no – Mark Stone is a Man Of Action. Responding to a letter he receives from the widow of an old ‘Nam buddy, Stone checks out the man’s son, Jose Ortega, Jr, and learns all about the Chicano gangs in this area and the drug-running Mexican mob that employs them. In a sequence that comes off like a flashback to Cunningham’s earlier Penetrator work, Stone suits up in black and launches a hard probe on a PCP factory in the desert outside LA.

This whole part is like nothing before in the series, and in fact seems to point in the direction the series would eventually go, with Stone even realizing that someday he might need to branch out from his MIA rescuing efforts and focus on situations closer to home. Anyway he kills a whole bunch of Mexican goons, and takes on El Lobo, the leader of the gang. Here in El Lobo’s hidden crypt Stone discovers hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money, and he gnashes his teeth over what to do with all of that cash. But before he can decide, the next storyline comes along.

Going home, Stone finds a dying man in his garage. The dude mutters something about a “Rosalyn” still being alive, and then croaks. Stone meanwhile experiences a lengthy flashback to early 1974. We learn here that Stone, in the final days of the Vietnam War, was in love with an Army nurse named Rosalyn James and that the two planned to get married. (It goes without saying of course that we’ve never heard of her before!) Strangely, Cunningham writes this whole sequence like it’s occuring in 1968 or something, with the war raging in full force, but in reality 1974 was in the waning days, as the US was slowly pulling out its forces. 

Anyway, Rosalyn was a medevac nurse, and one night while Stone was on some in-country mission, she took a last-second job for some other nurse, and her helicopter came under heavy fire. Rosalyn ended up falling out of the ‘copter, which later crashed, everyone onboard burnt to a crisp; Rosalyn was listed as KIA. However she survived her fall, and was found by a Vietnamese soldier who ended up selling her to a sadist who goes by the name “the General;” a powerful Laotian warlord who rules a clifftop fortress on the China-Laos border.

Stone only eventually pieces this together. Using his girlfriend Carol’s government resources he discovers that the dead man in his garage was a CIA agent who worked the Southeast Asia field. Also, given that Stone has only ever known one “Rosalyn,” he quickly deduces that she must be the woman the dying man said was still alive! From this leap of logic Stone, who discovers the charges against him have been thrown out of court, jumps right back into MIA Hunter mode; now he just has to track down Hog and Loughlin, who he discovers have taken a job in El Salvador.

This is the next storyline – Cunningham here delivers a sequence reminiscent of a war novel, as Stone ventures down to South America and hooks up with his two pals, who have been training government soldiers to fight against the insurrectionists. This bit is a little plodding and really has nothing to do with anything, but it does lead up to a climax in which Stone, in pure ‘80s action hero mode, hops on a dirt bike and fires LAW rockets while driving it. And judging from the series cover paintings, Stone even wears an ‘80s-mandatory headband, so the picture is complete.

Finally we get to the last storyline, which happens to be the one promised on the back cover. Stone and pals head for Thailand, where they learn more about the General’s fortress. It’s on a 500-foot cliff which can only be scaled by “bucket elevators,” and it’s guarded by a few hundred elite guards. Also, the General makes his money through the poppy fields beneath his fortress, from which he produces heroin. After a lot of worry over how few supplies they can carry, they find an American merc who flies a helicopter that can fly them and all their gear the few hundred miles to the China-Laos border.

Cunningham occasionally cuts over to Rosalyn’s viewpoint, so we can see how her life has gone over the past thirteen years. She runs a clinic in the fortress, where she lives in a “gilded cage” of three opulent rooms. The General has treated her kindly, except for the time she discovered he was a heroin manufacturer; the General escorted her down to the dungeon for a view of his torture chamber, and Rosalyn complained no more. However the General only occasionally “visits” her now, and Rosalyn has taken a lover, a young soldier named Lu Fang who is part of a group that plans to overthrow the General.

Weaving the various plots together in a taut finale, Cunningham delivers an ongoing action scene in which Stone and companions raid the fortress shortly after the doomed rebellion. He even stays true to the pulpy tone with Rosalyn hooked up to the rack in the General’s dungeon and Stone coming to her rescue in the nick of time. The fight with the General plays more on the villain’s weasely nature, so there’s none of the superhuman figtihng of say #4: Mountain Massacre, however Cunningham does drop the ball here because toward the beginning we’re informed that the General likes to dress in ancient Chinese armor and carry around ancient weapons, but our author apparently forgets all of that when the General finally appears.

The MIA Hunter series has never had much continuity, but I’m hoping this installment has repercussions on later volumes. For after a memorable final confrontation with the General in his torture chamber, Stone and Rosalyn (who survives, much to my surprise) spend some quality time together, and the next day escape the fortress. Here though they are attacked by ground forces – only to be saved by the last-second appearance of a Huey helicopter, with Carol Jenner manning a machine gun and blowing everyone away. At first I thought she was going to turn out to be some deep-cover operative, but Cunningham instead has it that Stone’s girlfriend used her smarts to figure out where Stone would be, and hired a helicopter to come rescue him and etc.

Anyway, Stone: MIA Hunter ends with Mark stone in the center of a veritable love triangle, choppering out of Laos with his one-time fiance, having been saved by his current girlfriend. Cunningham doesn’t provide a clue which way it might go, though he does seem to indicate that Stone decides Rosayln is the one for him. I’d love to say we’ll find out in the next volume, but I’m not holding my breath.


Unknown said...

Great review!

I've always enjoyed this series. I remember buying each one as they were released (and continuously digging their covers).

Amusing story about this particular title. When it came out, I was at the bookstore with my daughter and her boyfriend. They had just gone swimming and were toting around their wet towels.

Anyways, her boyfriend stole this book from the store. He stored it within his wet towel. When we reached the car, he took it out and the darned thing was soaked through.

I was laughing so hard at the karma of the event I couldn't be mad... heh.

Joe Kenney said...

Trever, thanks a lot for sharing -- that's a very funny story!

Greg said...

Loving these reviews! I discovered this book at a newsstand in 1987 when I was 12 and in dire need of a Rambo fix. I became hooked immediately and read each subsequent book as soon as they came out. I pictured Randall Tex Cobb as Hog Wiley, probably because I'd seen him in Uncommon Valor and thought that the two characters shared a certain spiritual affinity--both being crazed, gun toting, maniacs.

I can't swear to it, but I think the first encounter with the street gang happens in a fast-food joint in East L.A. and Stone uses his belt and beltbuckle as a weapon (unless I'm remembering a different book).

Not being especially well read, at 12 years old, I interpreted Mark Stone's lack of character development as cool, professionalism, from an ass-kicker who takes out the bad guys with a reptilian sense of detachment, yet never fails to do the right thing (in this instance that being killing lots of people without remorse).

Reading the synopses of all the various storylines makes me think perhaps the writer treated the book as a watershed for various ideas that weren't big enough to warrant their own book, but needed a home. However, the special double cover with the raised bamboo on one side and the drawing of the fortress on the other side with Stone crouching in the jungle on the opposing page--obviously this was a special edition along the lines of a Super Bolan or what have you. Too bad it was the only one.

Eventually I moved on to another series called SEALs by Steve MacKenzie (aka Kevin Randal). When SEALs played out after 14 books I graduated to Mack Bolan--and perhaps due to the fact that all three series had many of the same ghostwriters churning out stories for them at various times they began to seem interchangeable after awhile.

At one time I thought Fred Ward would have been perfect as Mark Stone (Uncommon Valor...again). Though the closest we'll likely see to a live action M.I.A. Hunter movie is probably "P.O.W.: the Escape" with David Carridine and/or "Strike Commando" starring Reb Brown (and his maniacal shouting explosions).

There's no real point to any of this, nor any ultimate conclusion, but it makes me smile to know there were other 12 year old kids who needed their fix of jingoistic mayhem and found it, or failed to find it, in the fictional exploits of (not quite Rambo) ex-green beret Mark Stone.

Joe Kenney said...

Greg, thanks a lot for the comment, glad you found the blog! Yeah, I too was caught up in all that jingoistic mayhem as an '80s kid...hard to believe it was 30 years ago! I've yet to read any of those SEALS novels, though I picked up a few of them for a pittance the other year. If I'm not mistaken, that one was set in 'Nam, wasn't it?

Speaking of who would play Mark Stone, I mentioned in my review of volume #1 what I found to be an uncanny resemblance between the cover paintings and modern actor James Franco...though of course I'd prefer Fred Ward!

Anyway, thanks again for your comments, I really enjoyed them.

Greg said...

SEALs was a fun series. About half of the series is set in Vietnam. The other books can better be described as a trashy paperback account of Reagan-era foreign policy shoe-horned into the late 60s. One of the Middle-Eastern capers is basically the plot of the movie Delta Force with SEALs standing in for the Delta guys.

I see the resemblance to James Franco. I always thought the model they used for the covers looked a lot like the actor Harry Hamlin (Clash of the Titans, LA Law). The same dude is also on some of the SEALs covers--which seems to lend itself to the argument that the books are interchangeable.

The movie we want stars Fred Ward, but the movie we probably deserve stars Lorenzo Llamas and Gary Busey.