There were only two books in the short-lived Tunnel Rats series by Stephen Mertz (writing as Cliff Banks), and that was a real shame because they are both exciting Vietnam War combat adventure paperbacks. In the second installment, Mertz does a great job of getting the reader up to speed about the team combatting the Vietcong’s unusual guerrilla war tactic of employing underground tunnels, so a new reader is never lost by jumping into the action without having read the preceding paperback.
“Mud and Blood” was released by Popular Library in 1990 and features the same four-man team combatting the Vietcong in the boobytrapped jungle. The foursome consists of Gaines, DeLuca, Hildago, and their Vietcong defector scout, Bok Van Tu. Together they form a highly-classified special forces team with the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Section of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division - a team known as the Tunnel Rats.
The lean paperback wastes no time throwing the reader squarely into the action with Gaines garroting an enemy sentry before snapping his neck with bare hands. Mertz writes vivid combat violence about as well as I’ve ever read. The threat to the team’s success are the trained battalions of Vietcong soldiers who hide underground in the labyrinth of man-made tunnels - over 200 miles worth - beneath the view of the U.S. soldiers around Saigon.
Despite his relative youth as a 25 year-old, Gaines is a formidable leader naturally-suited to the close-quarters combat in the claustrophobic tunnels because of his unique upbringing exploring the mineshafts in his Montana hometown. DeLuca is a somewhat stereotypical New York Italian, and Hidalgo is a SoCal Chicano also straight out of central casting. Meanwhile Tu brings to the table language abilities and a working knowledge of the tunnel system coupled with his sincere desire for a democratic Vietnam. They all have lean bodies suitable for combat operations inside the narrow, claustrophobic tunnels.
The mission at the heart of “Mud and Blood” involves a Vietcong Captain named Quang who is hiding in the underground tunnel system with a group of his own soldiers waiting to kill American troops. The Army needs the Tunnel Rats to drive Quang and his troops out of the tunnels where they can be captured by U.S. forces.
The action occasionally shifts to Quang who has made a home and base of operations in an underground lair. The Americans have no idea that Quang’s troops are expanding the tunnel system with the intention of stretching the beneath a U.S. base - giving the enemy easy access to the heart of local U.S. Army operations. Can the Tunnel Rats stop Quang’s underground activities before it’s too late?
“Mud and Blood” is a terrific, high-stakes action novel with real heroes and a diabolical - but nuanced - villain. The combat set-pieces were written with a cinematic flair for choreographing literary excitement without being overly wordy. This is a fast-moving popcorn novel for fans of pulpy adventure fiction.
Still an active author, Mertz has been very forward-leaning when it comes to making his historical body of work available as reprints and eBooks for modern audiences. I tracked the author down to ask him if there were any plans to reprint and digitize the two Tunnel Rats novels, and he responded that he’d need to look into who owns the intellectual property rights pursuant to the contract he signed with Popular Library nearly 30 years ago. I, for one, am hoping that these books see the light of day again solely because it would be a shame for combat adventure yarns this good to be lost to the ages. Recommended.
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