The Dead Don’t Sleep by Steven Max Russo

Steven Max Russo sent this to me with a warning about graphic violence, but honestly? I’ve read enough horror novels and thrillers that, while this book is definitely on the violent side, it never descends into gratuitous gore, instead giving a visceral depiction of what really happens in war and bloodshed and refusing to look away from the cost of taking a life and what that means for the killer, justified or otherwise.

The Dead Don’t Sleep tells the story of Frank Thompson, a mild-mannered Vietnam vet who’s recently lost his beloved wife. After grieving alone for a while in his rural Maine home, he decides to accept an invitation to spend a week with his nephew Bill and family down in New Jersey. While out trap shooting at a range with Bill, he runs into a face from the past, even tho he initially pretends to have no idea of their connection.

Jack Sprague is the kind of guy who never forgets a face, however. Despite having last encountered Frank decades ago, he instinctively remembers the man, as well as the grudge he still bears him. After recruiting several other vets who also knew Frank back in Vietnam, they trace Bill’s Jeep to its home address and spring an unpleasant surprise on their former brother-in-arm’s family.

Determined to protect what few relatives he has left, Frank makes it clear to his old “buddies” that he’s gotten the message and is clearing out of New Jersey post-haste. But his old comrades believe that revenge is a dish best served cold (and high), and decide to take their revenge trip on the road, following Frank back up to Maine for a final, lethal showdown.

This was a page-turning depiction of the aftermath of the Vietnam war, serving almost as a metaphor for how America is still dealing with what it did to its own troops in pursuit of victory by any means. While Frank’s crisis of conscience helped him come back and establish a normal life as an upstanding citizen, Jack, Birdy and Pogo — three men whose psychopathic tendencies were further strengthened by their superiors’ decisions — were never able to regain what little moral fiber they might have once had, never mind learn to strengthen it. When they run into a man they believe betrayed them, they use that as an excuse to abandon whatever semblance of a civilian identity they have left, in order to plan and participate in a lawless bloodbath of drugs and murder. But Frank won’t go down without a fight, even as others, wittingly or otherwise, circle in on the deadly denouement the vets are setting up for one another.

What really struck me as a Southeast Asian American reader was the utter lack of jingoism in TDDS. While the subject of American foreign relations is outside of the scope of this thriller, Mr Russo’s candid look at how the American government deliberately warped its own soldiers makes for compelling, if disturbing reading. It was also nice to see how Frank’s responsible gun ownership was contrasted with his fellow vets’ and even Bill’s views on the matter — for God’s sake, Bill, get a gun safe, you have kids! Frank is a terrific hero, who often says what I’m thinking. Even his repeated admonishments of Bill, which might have sounded tiresome in other circumstances, were perfectly suited to the narrative (and were what I kept thinking myself as I read the book!) It was refreshing, too, to have the drugged up criminals be a bunch of old white guys, whom I’ve always found scarier than any other purportedly violence-prone demographic.

Some of the writing felt a little rough around the edges, with a sort of breathless, run-on quality, particularly towards the beginning of the book, but it’s nothing a good editor can’t help sand down. I’m really looking forward to reading more of Mr Russo’s thoughtful, thrilling oeuvre, that blends edge-of-your-seat action with nuanced portrayals of the people society lets down and would rather forget about. Honestly, I kept thinking about how good this would be as a movie, and kept picturing Stephen Lang as Frank. Here’s hoping Mr Russo gets his breakthrough soon!

The Dead Don’t Sleep by Steven Max Russo was published November 18th 2019 by Down & Out Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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