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Apr 01, 2020 03:33PM ● By Michael Harris

The Deserter


Nelson DeMille became a popular author with his “action, adventure and suspense novels“ like The Charm School, Plum Island, The Lion, and The Cuban Affair. They were spellbinding thrillers about secret Soviet agents, mysterious murders, hidden treasures, ruthless villains, and brave American heroes. The Charm School was a sinister little Russian village where young KGB agents were taught how to be “perfect Americans” so they could infiltrate the United States and spy on us without being noticed. (Think of the TV series The Americans.) In Plum Island, we met John Corey, an NYPD detective recovering from injuries on Long Island. He learned of the murder of biologists on neighboring Plum Island along with a plot to develop biological weapons there. Corey takes on “a dangerous search for the secret of Plum Island” and tries to prevent a major catastrophe. In books like The Lion and The Panther, Corey attempts to capture or kill notorious Arab terrorists. In many of these books, Corey was teamed with Kate Mayfield, an FBI special agent. Much of the enjoyment of the books in this series was generated by the playful and humorous banter between these two as they try to prevent one terrorist attack after another and find the elusive fanatics.


A few years ago, DeMille published my favorite of his later novels, The Cuban Affair, a tantalizing mystery about a hunt for “buried treasure” in Cuba during the reign of Fidel Castro. (Reviewed in this column previously.) DeMille’s most recent book, The Deserter, is a significant departure from his earlier works. It’s the first of his novels that he co-authored with his screenwriter son, Alex. The story takes place in Venezuela (rather than in the Middle East or the U.S.). The heroes this time are Army officers Scott Brody and Maggie Taylor. They’ve been sent to Caracas, one of the most crime-infested cities in the world, to find an Army deserter named Kyle Mercer. After deserting the Army in Afghanistan, Mercer was captured by the Taliban, tortured, and then made a daring escape. Since then, the Army has been trying to find him to determine why he deserted, how he escaped the Taliban, and why he was working with revolutionaries trying to overthrow the corrupt Venezuelan government. Brody and Taylor’s search take them to the slums of Caracas and a brothel that features under-age girls. After Brody makes another of his outrageous puns, Taylor says the only really clever line in the book: “No more stupid jokes.“ Unfortunately, The Deserter seems to be one stupid joke after another. The plot is lame, the characters unengaging, and the story goes nowhere. Rather than rooting for the heroes to find Mercer and bring him to justice, I was rooting for Mercer. You know a story is terribly flawed when you start rooting for the villain because the hero is so obnoxious.


The Deserter didn’t have the same vibe as DeMille’s previous books. I’ve seen this with other authors when they have someone co-author a book or use a ghostwriter. Often the co-writer does most of the writing, so the book loses the flavor of the main author. I was waiting for the usual thrilling Nelson DeMille ending, but it never came. Needless to say, The Deserter was a major disappointment, especially since my expectations were so high based on Deville’s previous books. If you want a real sense of adventure, clever and engaging characters, and a powerful and intriguing thriller, read his earlier works, like Plum Island, The Charm School, The Lion, or The Cuban Affair. Better yet, read all of them.