Inspired by the strange case of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army sergeant who deserted his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was subsequently captured by the Taliban and held captive until 2014, ”The Deserter” is a thriller about a U.S. Army officer who also deserts his post in Afghanistan and is held captive by the Taliban.
But the fictional Capt. Kyle Mercer is different in many ways from the real deserter. Mercer is an elite special operator who kills and beheads his captors on video and then looks into the camera and resigns his Army commission. Mercer resembles more the renegade Col. Kurtz character in Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now” than the oddball Bergdahl.
In Nelson DeMille and Alex DeMille’s “The Deserter” two U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) investigators are assigned the task of finding and bringing to justice the deserter, who has been identified as living in Venezuela. The two investigators are Chief Warrant Officer Scott Brodie and Chief Warrant Officer Maggie Taylor.
“Brodie tried to recall what he knew about this case. Captain Kyle Mercer had been a member of the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment — Delta, more famously known as Delta Force. 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,” the authors write.
“One night three years earlier, while stationed with a small team at a remote combat outpost in the rugged Hindu Kush, he walked off. According to his teammates, Captain Mercer must have left sometime after midnight. He took all his field gear with him, along with night vision goggles and his M4 rifle, but no one had actually seen him leave the outpost, and no one noticed he was missing until first light. Conclusion: He deserted.
“Desertion is rare. Desertion in a war zone like Afghanistan even rarer. And desertion in a war zone by an officer in an elite unit, unheard of.”
The desertion of Capt. Mercer is a mystery, a public relations nightmare and a major security risk, as he possessed in his head highly classified information about counterinsurgency operations. Capt. Mercer was a highly trained, experienced and well-regarded officer. All his teammates described him as a capable, competent, and brave commanding officer. Why a man like Capt. Mercer would desert is a mystery to the investigators.
“Captain Mercer was an enigma even before he walked off in the night into a rugged mountain range in one most dangerous and godforsaken corners of the earth,” Nelson DeMille and his son Alex DeMille tell us.
And as bad as Afghanistan was, Mercer then travels to Caracas, Venezuela, a place the general briefing Brodie and Taylor calls the “murder capital of the world.”
Scott Brodie, an infantry sergeant who served in combat in Iraq prior to becoming a CID investigator, is a typical DeMille character: Bold, brave and a wise guy. Maggie Taylor served in Afghanistan in a Civil Affairs Unit in Afghanistan. Although both are combat veterans, the two investigators are on their own in Venezuela, a once-prosperous oil-rich country that is nearly destitute under a failed socialist government.
Scott Brodie is warned that his attractive investigative partner had dated a CIA officer in Afghanistan. Reminded that the CIA often recruited Civil Affairs officers, Brodie was ordered to discover her true loyalty, be it CID or the CIA.
“The CIA. That perennial bogeyman of the military and civilian worlds alike,” the authors write. “The CIA was everything the Army was not — nebulous and nimble, with a loose command structure and a murky code of ethics. Not to mention a purposely confusing mission statement. This engendered a natural distrust and, in Brodie’s opinion, a lot of unhelpful scapegoating.”
The investigators are given a contact in Caracas, a Defense Intelligence colonel named Brendan Worley, whom Brodie instinctively mistrusts. The colonel connects the investigators to Luis, a Venezuelan driver who helps them get close to Mercer.
Brodie and Taylor are ordered to capture Mercer and bring him back to the United States. They are ordered not to interrogate him or even ask him questions. But the investigators’ natural curiosity makes them wonder why a Delta captain would desert and why would he end up in Venezuela?
While hunting down Mercer’s whereabouts in Venezuela, the investigators encounter corrupt cops and abject poverty. They also encounter criminal gangs in league with the government and they engage in a deadly gun fight. Their search leads them from the city of Caracas to the Venezuelan jungle.
“The Deserter” is rich with Nelson DeMille’s customary dry humor, clever banter and sardonic commentary. Nelson DeMille and his son Alex have written a fast-paced, suspenseful and interesting thriller.
• Paul Davis covers crime, espionage and terrorism.
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By Nelson DeMille and Alex DeMille
Simon & Schuster, $28.99, 544 pages