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'The Deserter' review: A run of DeMille adventure yarn

"The Deserter" is the first collaboration of Alex,

"The Deserter" is the first collaboration of Alex, left, and Nelson DeMille. Credit: Dagmar Weaver-Madsen; John Ellis

THE DESERTER by Nelson DeMille and Alex DeMille (Simon & Schuster, 532 pp., $28.99).

Army Captain Kyle Mercer is a very scary man. ”He was the elite of the elite, one of the most potent weapons in the military’s arsenal, and the tip of the spear in the counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan.” He is the creation of Nelson DeMille, writing for the first time with his son, Alex, in his 21st novel, "The Deserter."

One night, for reasons no one can imagine, Capt. Mercer abandoned his unit and walked off into the night. Did he go over to the other side? That terrifying thought drove a frantic search during which two soldiers died. There was no sign of him at all until three months later, when a hostage video showed Mercer kneeling in the dirt surrounded by gloating Taliban fighters. Then two years later, he was back on the screen, this time murdering his captors and putting their heads on spikes.

Now, unbelievably enough, he’s been spotted in a brothel that specializes in underage prostitutes in Caracas, Venezuela. Determined to bring him to justice, the Army sends two top members of its Criminal Investigation Division.

Scott Brodie and Maggie Taylor have only recently been paired as partners, and don’t know each other very well. They’ll be posing as married tourists Clark and Sarah Bowman in Venezuela, though why any married tourists would go to Venezuela is hard to say. The country is in total economic collapse — people are out of work and starving; crime is rampant; the police are bandits with guns. Their hotel is the only one considered safe enough to stay at — it is surrounded by a 10-foot-high wall topped with razor wire and monitored by armed guards. If you aren’t already aware of the magnitude of the crisis in Venezuela, the DeMilles provide a very detailed picture.

Brodie is a nonstop wisecracker with endless supplies of bravado and braggadocio; Taylor is serious and likes to do things by the book. The banter between the two is crisp and constant, a la Nick and Nora Charles; perhaps this was the junior DeMille’s influence, as he is a screenwriter. In one typical interaction, Brodie does not consult Taylor before he decides to show some shady national guardsmen who have pulled them over a picture of Mercer.

“That was reckless,” says Taylor afterwards.

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” says Brodie. 

“Please consult me before you risk our lives and freedom.”

“All’s well that ends well."

“Any more cliches?”

“You’re beautiful when you get angry.”

Because we are restricted to seeing Taylor almost exclusively through the eyes of Brodie, she is presented as a sex object for the majority of the book. A scene of her swimming: “Brodie hung up, stood, and watched Taylor as she did a backstroke down the length of the pool, aided by her God-given flotation devices.” A scene of her at the national guard checkpoint just mentioned: “It seemed to Brodie that Cordero was trying to decide whether this was a moneymaking moment or an opportunity to see if Mrs. Bowman’s hair was her natural color.” 

I found this constant focus on her appearance unbearable after a while. When we aren’t reading about Brodie’s lust for her (occasional suggestions that it is mutual are not well supported), she is being threatened with rape and sexual slavery by the evil characters and drooled over by all the rest. Throughout most of the book, Brodie feels that she’s hiding something from him, and that it has something to do with an affair she had with a CIA agent, which in itself is considered traitorous by the Army. Actually, it’s much worse than that. Well, you know how weak women are.

By the end of the book I was wondering if it’s possible to file a sexual harassment suit on behalf of a fictional character. Nelson DeMille has many, many fans, and I guess they don’t mind this sort of thing, though it does seem out of sync with current standards.

The rock-em, sock-em denouement of "The Deserter" takes Brodie and Taylor somewhere even more dangerous than Caracas — a heart-of-darkness jungle hideout where Mercer’s “gone apocalyse now,” as Brodie puts it, training a mercenary army to avenge the wrongs of the U.S. government and military. Brodie’s diagnosis: he’s either suffering from the worst case of post-traumatic stress disorder in history, or he’s found a new therapy for it. Even Taylor gets to show off her moves In the final match of wits and weapons.

Feminists they are not, but those DeMilles know how to write an ending.

WHAT Nelson and Alex DeMille discussion and book signing of "The Deserter"
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Oct. 24, Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington
INFO Free; 631-271-1442, bookrevue.com

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