Monday, October 08, 2007

The Valley of Death



by Gwynne Huntington Wales
(iUniverse / 0-595-41889-9 / March 2007 / 418 pages / $23.95)

Getting right to the point, this is one of the more professionally composed and edited books reviewed on this site. Gwynne Huntington Wales is a fan of spy fiction from the cold war era. Two examples would be John le Carre's The Spy Wo Came in from the Cold (1963) and Smiley's People (1979). In my other reviews of the book, I compare it favorably to Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October (1984) and Ian Fleming's James Bond series (1953-66). For the record, the Clancy and Fleming books still reside on my bookshelf, but I have been less enamored of the le Carre style. As you might imagine from reading my own material, I tend to fly far off the left wing with Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson. I like Denny Crane better than Captain Kirk simply because Kirk is just so straight-arrow military in his disposition. As with many other books I have reviewed, the main reason you may want to read The Valley of Death is that I give it such a high rating even when the subject matter and style are a little too dry and right wing for my taste. I have to say overall that Gwynne Huntington Wales has made the grade. He's a member of the club. You won't mistake The Valley of Death for one of those stinky old POD books you have read so much about.

As a critic, I have to tell you what I found wrong with the book. I have exactly three complaints, four if you count the adjectives dry and military stated above. The title should have been Aardvark or Agent Aardvark for many reasons: (1) The Valley of Death is too generic and it may cause readers not to be able to find it in search engines; (2) the secret agent lead character has such a memorable name; and (3) Aardvark needs to have many more adventures, just like Jack Ryan, Smiley, and Bond. My second complaint is with the cover. It does nothing to cause me to buy the book. The red on black text in the marketing blurb is difficult to read (sound familiar?). At least you can see from the photo on the back that Gwynne is not a girl. My third complaint is far the most serious of all; however, fans of the genre may tell me to get back on the bus to Hunter S. Thompson's ranch. I found the compositional style in the consistent, matter-of-fact, third-person, past-tense to be a bit boring. Remember that I don't like Captain Kirk much, either, so you may have every right to feel that I am just full of it, that this sort of story needs that official, military precision. You may very well be correct in this context. I hope you know that I am protesting too much with my complaints. This is the most professional-looking book I have reviewed that has been published utilizing the optional editing services of iUniverse. The error count is commendably low, I love the lead characters, and the plot is so topical that most readers will wallow in the realistic possibilities of the storyline.

Remember that episode of Seinfeld where they went backwards through the timeline? That's what this review is doing. CIA Agent Vandermeer, code named Aardvark, has been sent to Iraq in November 2002 to track the path of a canister of nerve gas discovered by a British intelligence agent. The story begins in what Aardvark nicknames The Valley of Death because it is a hidden valley in which nothing seems to be alive: no animals, no plants, no bugs. The canister has been stashed by the bad guys at the bottom of a lake, which of course, contains no fish. The villains are bringing the canister up from the lake bottom for an obvious purpose. The question is who are they going to use it against and where are they going to use it? My favorite part of the story is that Aardvark has been participating in an abstinence-only program for the past ten years, and now the CIA introduces him to a new girlfriend of Middle Eastern descent who is a double agent. The adventures of Aardvark and Sophia make Bond look like a promiscuous rake, and this is where the author really shows us his magic. Gwynne Wales has created a new American Bond for contemporary America.

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