War Crime: John Renehan’s The Valley

ValleyEx-US Army officer John Renehan’s novel The Valley surprises and pleases at many turns. The story of an Army infantry lieutenant assigned to conduct an official Article 15-6 investigation of a seemingly minor incident at a remote outpost in Nuristan province, Afghanistan, The Valley maps the highly structured form of a crime novel onto the equally structured form of a war novel. Rather than forced, the mash-up of genres in Renehan’s hands feels harmonious and productive. 15-6 investigations are a fact-of-life for Army officers—I did about ten of them while I was in—and so in The Valley the conceit serves plausibly to expose how awry might go a small, isolated unit, and the LT-as-private-dick motif breathes new life into the many-times-told tale of a junior officer’s disillusionment.

The Valley’s protagonist is Black, no first name given, who at novel’s opening is pushing paper at battalion headquarters after losing his position as a platoon leader. Black’s appointment to investigate a wayward weapons discharge by an American soldier outside Combat Outpost (COP) Vega, the most remote and dangerous outpost in the battalion’s area of operations, is just another indignity he must endure before he can quit the Army. After a long convoy up the rugged valley of the novel’s title, Black is met at COP Vega with hostility from the outpost’s soldiers. They clearly hold out on him, they clearly are wracked by internal strife, and they clearly are beholden to the charismatic sway of the outpost’s two senior sergeants, Sergeant First Class Merrick and Staff Sergeant Caine. COP Vega’s nominal officer-in-charge, Lieutenant Pistone, departs the outpost on the same convoy that brings Black to it, and in the week before the convoy returns to exfil him, Black learns that Lieutenant Pistone has been an ineffective, cowardly leader and yet also somehow connected to wrongdoing far more consequential than the weapons discharge that prompted official investigation.

Sensing the basic rottenness of COP Vega, Black begins kicking over rocks to discover what creepy-crawly things lie beneath. The unit’s manning roster doesn’t match up with the personnel actually on COP Vega, and its relationship with the town nearest the outpost is abysmal, even by Afghanistan standards. A second, smaller outpost, unknown to higher headquarters, exists on the heights above COP Vega, its raison-d’etre both tactical and things more nefarious. Most significantly, Black learns that Sergeant First Class Merrick and Staff Sergeant Caine hate each other, and one or the other or both has gone rogue and taken factions of the platoon with him. A mysterious “Other Governmental Agency” American comes and goes, leaving behind enigmatic hints about COP Vega’s dark mysteries. At stake, Black further discovers, are the valley’s poppy growing and heroin distribution networks, into which at least some of the Americans have enmeshed themselves both for personal profit and narcotic bliss. As Black strings together clues that threaten the prevailing balance-of-power, he places his own life and everyone else’s life on COP Vega, precarious to begin with, in even greater jeopardy.

Renehan narrates the story mostly through Black’s perspective, but withholds description of the key cognitive leaps made by the sleuthful lieutenant as he uncovers the extent of COP Vega illegality—we see him acting on his intuitions, but we are never sure what exactly he has perceived that propels the successive steps of his inquiry. The result is a thrilling speed-read to The Valley’s end as the reader, or this one anyway, goes near-crazy to learn precisely what evil has befallen COP Vega and who is responsible. There are red herrings galore, as well as some seemingly gratuitous and even goofy plot turns, but rather than quibble, I would love to meet someone else who has read The Valley so we can argue about its many what-the-hell-was-that-all-about moments.

Comparisons are said to be odious, but perhaps also apt in consideration of The Valley’s achievement. The novel reads as if Renehan had grafted JK Rowling’s (aka Robert Galbraith) The Cuckoo’s Calling onto Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, and then mixed in elements of Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War. The fiercely independent Black bears much resemblance to Cormoran Strike, the gruff, no-nonsense veteran turned private eye driven by spite and ethics to uncover wrong-doing in The Cuckoo’s Calling. Like The Watch, The Valley plumbs the rank-based social dynamics of life on a middle-of-nowhere American outpost in Afghanistan, but where The Watch enfolds its storyline in the reassuring purview of its stalwart outpost commander and first sergeant, The Valley suggests power and authority invested in the chain-of-command corrupts rather than ennobles. Like Wynne’s War, The Valley contains brisk moments of action-adventure that begin on a remote Afghan outpost and then grow ever more exotic as its heroes journey outside the wire. But more so than Wynne’s War and The Watch, The Valley finds a compelling story through which to showcase its thematic interests. In Renehan’s view, poor leadership and poorly-defined missions unleash moral chaos and then evil among soldiers in small units left alone to fight the war as they can. Where Wynne’s War seems fanciful and The Watch pulls its punches, The Valley’s noir and police procedural elements convey a moral seriousness—a bigger message—that manages to implicate the entire US military mission in Afghanistan.

John Renehan’s The Valley. Dutton, 2015. This review by no means exhausts my interest in The Valley, so I hope to return to it in a future post.

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