Stephen Mertz is widely considered the main creator of the ‘M.I.A. Hunter’ series. He, along with Bill Crider and Joe Lansdale, wrote a majority of the series’ 17 books. For book five, “Exodus from Hell”, popular action and western author Chet Cunningham apparently came on board. I’ve spent a great deal of time digging under stones and bridges to provide the definitive verification of this – but just can’t seem to gain anything other than Joe at the Glorious Trash blog sourcing the book’s author in his review. It would certainly make sense as Cunningham also wrote the non-numbered book “Stone: M.I.A. Hunter” between books five and six. However, jury still out at the time of this review.
“Exodus from Hell” is another Jove paperback, released in 1986 under house name Jack Buchanan. Fans of the series know exactly what to expect when they flip open the novel – Mark Stone, Hog Wiley and Terrance Loughlin kicking serious jungle ass. This fifth entry in the series does plenty of that, but is unique to this line because it reverses the order of events from the series’ predecessors. While prior books followed the same formula, this book surprisingly does things just a little differently.
As the book begins we have a familiar scene unfolding with Stone and his mercenaries deep into Cambodia. The trio, along with hired assistance, quickly dispose of a small unit of Vietnamese soldiers before approaching a prison camp that’s housing three American prisoners of war. We are introduced to two of these characters as the author describes in graphic detail their daily rituals, struggles and punishment. In a furious opening scene, the camp is liberated and the trio are able to rescue two of the three soldiers. The third had perished under the harsh conditions before the rescue. Here’s where things get a little bit divergent. Instead of the book focusing on the heroes receiving the assignment, scouting the location and then making the finale rescue, this book reverses the order of events. “Exodus from Hell” is true to its name. This book captures the escape and trek out of hostile land.
If we assume the book is written by Cunningham, then his descriptive combat throughout the book would be at least partially written from experience. Cunning served in the Korean War, fought in two battles and, according to his website, participated in numerous line-crossing and prisoner patrols. All of that is presented with detail and authority here. He’s an engaging storyteller and really brings focus and clarity to the dangers awaiting Stone and company – the jungle environment, fatigue, opposition. As Stone attempts to get his company out of harm’s way, they can only watch in horror as the rescue chopper explodes. Thus, the premise of the book, hiking on foot through 200 miles of jungle to cross over into safehouse Thailand. Along the trek the group has one P.O.W. completely delusional, strong guy Wiley being injured and carted and a missionary that is attempting to transport six children out of harm’s way. All of these elements collectively create a perfect storm.
I hold this series in fairly high regard overall. It’s connected to my childhood and with that comes a certain kinship. But these books are just really well written, whether it’s Lansdale, Mertz, Cunningham or whoever. “Exodus to Hell” is a series highlight for me and one that definitely stands the test of time. It’s saturated with combat violence, presenting a gritty story of survival, but occasionally muffles the bang with heartfelt strives for peace. It’s a great story and I highly recommended it even if you aren’t a fan of the series. If you love this genre…you simply can’t go wrong here.