For the first ten days of May, Paperback Warrior is celebrating vintage fiction with a countdown of our ten most popular reviews ever - determined by you, our readers.
I’ll be honest with you. I’ll only read one or two thick doorstop books a year, because I hate taking the risk that I’ll be trapped in the middle of a long-ass book that isn’t going anywhere. And at 330 pages and a tiny typeface, Hanoi Hellground is more than twice the length of the standard action/adventure series novel. But I’ve had a lot of luck with Vietnam War pulp lately, and I love the grinning skull covers on these Black Eagles novels, so I tore into this series’ debut. Fortunately, the book keeps moving from start to finish.
It’s basically The Dirty Dozen in Vietnam. An elite squad is put together for special combat missions, and the first assignment is to seize a huge pagoda complex way up in North Vietnam, kill all the military bigshots inside, find a hidden code descrambler there, and get out of the country with it after blowing up the place.
The pagoda is the headquarters of an evil, ambitious general who curries favor with his superiors by maintaining it as a party palace where they can do all the nasty things they can’t get away with in Hanoi. Most of those things happen behind closed doors and involve underage boys, but the general himself is fond of the ladies. (As the Black Eagles close in on the night of the raid, he’ll be busily boinking a young commie cutie; his heat-seeking moisture missile will deliver a payload six separate times, a feat which even Longarm might envy.)
The book is a little schizophrenic. On the one hand, it wants to be a serious military/espionage story, and it’s loaded with lots of details about weapons, strategy, Vietnamese culture and so forth. For example, a sequence where the squad learns high-altitude parachuting isn’t covered in a couple of sentences, but in page after page of exacting detail.
But then on the other hand, the book wants to be pulpy, and after a few mundane chapters one sordid shocker after another pops up. Some of them are lurid, like the female commando who dates a hated communist enemy just to castrate him and stuff his package into his mouth as he bleeds to death. Some are tragic, like the innocent Vietnamese tribesmen who are captured by the communists and tortured with electrodes attached to their scrotum. And occasionally they’re just psychotically evil, as when the communists punish nuns by forcing excrement down their throats, all for the crime of sheltering the orphans of non-communists. There’s a lot of excess here, and not all of it is fun to read. But like they say, war is hell.
Writing under the pen name of John Lansing, author Mark K. Roberts is clearly trying a different approach than the one employed in his lightweight, sexy White Squaw westerns. For the most part, Hanoi Hellground works. I liked all the combat action, and the inventive ways in which the Black Eagles deal with various perils on this mission. There was also ample backstory material on each member of the team, which helped flesh them out. (I still wasn’t really able to keep all thirteen of these guys separate and distinct in my mind, but that’s probably my fault rather than the book’s. I was still able to differentiate them as The Black Guy, The Hispanic Guy, The Jewish Guy, The Vietnamese Defector Guy, etc.)
There was one glaring flaw in the story. The pagoda is situated up in the mountains of northern North Vietnam. There’s no good, level place there for an Army helicopter to land, so the Black Eagles have to parachute down, about a day’s hike away from the target. Okay, fine. Once the mission is completed, they have 48 hours to reach a secret pickup location in a flatter area, where a chopper will land and carry them out of the country. But that pickup location is hundreds of kilometers away, down in the southern part of the country. Huh? There’s no other out-of-the-way place in all of North Vietnam where a chopper can land? That’s insane. But it gives the author a good excuse to extend the book by eighty pages or so, as the Black Eagles desperately hijack vehicles and race south, trying to elude the enraged North Vietnamese who are right on their heels, and hopefully get to the pickup location before it’s too late. Some of the book’s best material is in these eighty pages, including a brutal showdown with the depraved general on a racing locomotive, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.
Yes, the novel is longer than it needs to be. But it’s lively enough, and there’s some great action in it, so I didn’t mind much. Roberts did a good job with it. And although he didn’t write any of the later books in the series, I’m looking forward to exploring the later chapters of the Black Eagles saga… none of which are nearly as lengthy as this one was.