Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book Review: The Sergeant #3 - Bloody Bush by Len Levinson

Now that I've read this most elusive of Sergeant titles, I think I know why it's hard to find and expensive when you find it. I've read the two before this, as well as #'s 6 and 9, and I think this is my favorite so far. While the first two books are good, they're really just set-up for this point in the story, and show Levinson getting his legs steady in terms of the characters and setting. In this volume, I think the author really hits his stride, and we see just how violent, crazy, and completely enjoyable this series can be.

The book starts off with Hitler and his senior staff trying to decide how to stem the Allied breakout in Normandy. Rommel, probably one of the few men there with a real understanding of the danger the Allies pose, makes the mistake of opening his mouth when he shouldn't and gets slapped down by Hitler. This becomes a running point throughout the book - Rommel repeatedly having to deal with "no retreat" orders that make no sense, and just result in the wasteful destruction of seasoned fighting men who could make a better contribution to the defense elsewhere.

After the war room scene, we find ourselves with Mahoney and Cranepool once again. The two have transferred out of the Rangers in order to avoid constantly being assigned high-risk missions, and get placed within the 33rd "Hammerhead" Division, a fictional division that landed at the Normandy beachhead. The two (former) Rangers quickly realize one of the down sides to joining a line infantry unit - you get stuck with a bunch of grunts who don't know the first thing about surviving combat. And of course, Mahoney and Cranepool's new company CO and First Sergeant are a couple of jackasses who take an immediate dislike to their newest additions, because of their impressive war records and "know-it-all" attitudes. And, of course, because Mahoney immediately insults them both and earns their enmity. The duo are split up into two different platoons and sent on their way.

Mahoney and Cranepool both discover that their platoons are filled with guys who would never survive a day in a Ranger unit, and bemoan their decision to transfer, fearing that the incompetents will get them killed once they make contact with the Germans. Unfortunately, that happens right away; the push into the French bocage begins, and Captain Tugwell, Mahoney's latest nemesis, decides that the company with his two newcomers is going to lead the way (in the hopes of getting them both killed in action). Unfortunately for Tugwell, Mahoney is just too good a combat leader to let that happen, and he gets his new platoon CO to do what it takes to survive contact with the Germans.

This is where the Sergeant series really begins to take off. Levinson has a great gift for writing combat from the front-line grunt's perspective, and although it is pulpy and gratuitous and messy, the action is also pretty raw and exciting. Men on both sides are slaughtered in the clash of armies, with death coming from bullets, bayonets, grenades, artillery, mortars, and hand-to-hand combat. The chapters cut back and forth, between Mahoney and Cranepool as they fight to survive the horrors of front-line combat, and the Germans commanding the defending forces as they try to hold back the Allied onslaught, maneuvering what little resources they have to plug an ever-growing number of holes in their defensive lines, all while trying (at least on the surface) to obey Hitler's insane "to the last man" orders.

One of Levinson's other great strengths is showing the human side of the dogfaces. There's a whole sequence involving Mahoney, Cranepool, and a hopeful chicken dinner that made me laugh, as well as the moment when Mahoney receives a care package from his mother from back home. The line soldier's constant struggle to find chow, a decent foxhole to catch a few hours of sleep, and the joy from an occasional front-line luxury - like a good cigar or a bit of local booze - is handled deftly in this series, and the way it is juxtaposed with the combat sequences is nicely done as well.

As mentioned above, this book really seems to find the correct footing for the rest of the series, and I am curious as to why the series suddenly switches publishers in the next volume. I'll get to #4, The Liberation of Paris, soon - stay tuned.


James Reasoner said...

I suspect the series switched publishers because Bantam offered Walter more money than he thought he could make publishing them himself.

Charles Gramlich said...

These have gone on my list. WEird, that your captcha phrase has the word "soldier" in it.