Nelson DeMille’s 21st novel, “The Deserter,” couldn’t be more timely and exciting. It plays off the desertion and misbehavior case of infantryman Bowe Bergdahl, who went missing in Afghanistan in June 2009. Held captive by the Taliban, Bergdahl was released in 2014 in a prisoner exchange. Alluding to this real-life event, DeMille, a combat-decorated U.S. Army veteran, crafts a suspenseful tale that bristles with intrigue and dark humor. It turns on the search for Captain Kyle Mercer, whose desertion in Afghanistan has become a “public relations nightmare that the Army was desperate to get control of.” He’s been spotted by a former colleague in a whore house in Venezuela.
At 76, DeMille has begun a book series with a co-author — his 35-year old son Alex , an award-winning screenwriter, director, and editor. “The Deserter” is the first of three novels (of a contracted six) that will feature the DeMilles’ risk-taking, wise-ass 38-year-old protagonist Scott Brodie, a Chief Warrant Officer for the U.S. Army, and his subordinate partner, the beautiful, skilled Maggie Taylor. But though Scott and Maggie served, respectively, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the setting in “The Deserter” is corrupt and violent Venezuela, a place, Nelson DeMille confesses, he dared not go this time to do first-hand research.
Indeed, Venezuela is constantly in the news these days, a horrific example of a once oil-rich country degenerating in just a few years into chaos, poverty, hyper-inflation, and crime, most, if not all, of it courtesy the government itself as well as cartels, local and national police, and politicians, on the left and right.
Although the book’s colorful inside covers display a helpful map, a mileage scale would have been welcome, because much of the action involves tactical moves between Caracas and the Southeast jungle region of Canaima National Park, bordering on Guyana and Brazil. Still, the bottom line is that sickos and criminals are everywhere and into everything in Nicolás Maduro’s world, thanks to “an unholy alliance of the regime, the military, and the colectivos” who own drugs, politics, prostitution, and know how to work opportunistic enablers in Washington, D.C.
The book describes what daily news confirms — that Venezuela is “so bankrupt and f—–that even the corruption wasn’t working.” It’s often impossible to tell the good guys from the bad, Special Ops from Black Ops. But the nagging question remains: Why did U.S. Army Captain and Delta Force soldier Kyle Mercer flee to Pakistan in 2017, wind up getting caught and tortured by the Taliban, and move on to a hell hole like Venezuela? Enter Brodie and Taylor, whose mission it is to capture Mercer — preferably alive.
The chase accelerates at a dazzling clip early on. Twists snake into new complications, especially as the authors reverse their cat-and-mouse game and make both the good guys and the bad guys hunted and hunter. The plot not only thickens, but deepens, as the theme cynically exploits the competition among America’s intelligence personnel, particularly those working for the CIA. Crimes get “nice code names,” and thus are no longer considered crimes but unconventional “war-winning strategies.” But everyone in “The Deserter” is ethically challenged, including Scott and Maggie. Everyone has a heart of darkness.
Of course, what makes close-to-cliché heroes engaging is when they’re so damned smart, sarcastic, sacrificial, and therefore sexy. Scott has an A+ bulls–t detector as well as a finely tuned take on rules: “. . . as they say in the Army, ‘Whatever I hit is what I was aiming for.’” The old recruitment joke rings true: “Join the Army, see the world, meet new people, and kill them.” He’s been around long enough to know he’s been” f—– more times by Intel guys than by hookers.” As he mutters to himself, “The truth will set you free. John 8:32. The truth can get you killed. Scott 1:1.”
Not for nothing is Nelson DeMille a past president of the Mystery Writers of America and an International Thriller Master recipient, whose appearances at Authors Night in Amagansett generate long lines. As for his new collaborator? He’s quoted as having said laughingly to his son, “Want to make some easy money?” He knows, however, as does his son, that integrating the elements of fiction does not come easy. The apple may not fall far from the tree, but the tree’s got strong roots and an intricate branching pattern. As “The Deserter” evidences, both DeMilles are pros.