One of the most harrowing aspects of the Vietnam War became the basis for an obscure paperback series. The Vietcong dug some incredibly extensive tunnel systems beneath the jungle, in which soldiers and war supplies could be hidden for surprise attacks on American troops. Tunnel openings were cleverly concealed, and the tunnels themselves were riddled with booby traps (not to mention armed sentries lurking in the darkness), making these underground systems hard to find and harder still to penetrate.
There’s a lot of potential there for some good action/adventure fiction. Can author Cliff Banks deliver?
Well, Banks is actually Stephen Mertz (creator of the excellent M.I.A. Hunter series), so we’re in good hands, and the debut novel 'TUNNEL RATS' is outstanding. The only disappointing thing is that this would prove to be a very short-lived series, with just one more novel to come before an impatient Popular Library killed the franchise. If sales were soft, I blame the cover designs, not the writing.
Our heroes are a three-man squad who are selected for their general fighting ability, along with a Vietcong defector who trains them and accompanies them on their first assignment. One of the men is too proud to admit that he suffers from claustrophobia, and that’s going to be problematic later on, once they’re snaking their way through a tight VC tunnel system on their bellies in total darkness. Another guy in the squad has a bad feeling about the defector, who may or may not betray them.
There’s a lot more to the novel than just crawling around in tunnels. We get a jungle firefight, go-go dancers, a Saigon bar brawl and an incredible interrogation scene up in a helicopter, all before any of the tunnel stuff even begins. But everything that really matters is underground, and Mertz knows how to keep the reader wide-eyed and turning those pages. He maintains the perfect balance between action (to propel the narrative) and detail to help us feel like we’re down in those hot, stifling, terrifying tunnels ourselves, dealing with the snakes, the rats, the punji sticks and the rest of it.
I found myself holding my breath during a few of the most powerful passages. That’s the mark of truly great pulp fiction, and I doubt there are many action/adventure books that can top 'TUNNEL RATS' for tension.