The Intruders, Stephen Coonts

Pocket, 1994, 375 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-87061-0

Readers already familiar with military fiction already know that most of it takes place during wars. Whether historical or imagined, war seems a natural place for highlighting the efforts, sacrifices and emotions of average (?) military characters.

Stephen Coonts’s first novel was Flight of the Intruder, a Vietnam-era story of naval aviators trying to do their job as well as they could under the hesitant American political system. It was turned into a movie, albeit not a very successful one.

Afterward, Coonts branched out in fiction that was closer to thriller territory than military action… Terrorists taking over an aircraft carrier (Final Flight), a witch-hunt for soviet spies in a top-secret aircraft project (The Minotaur), drug dealers taking over Washington (Under Siege, not the Seagal movie) and hijinks in post-USSR Russia. (The Red Horseman)

All these novels starred Jake Grafton, a professional naval officer. In Flight of the Intruder, he’s a pilot. In Final Flight, he’s an air wing commander. The Intruders fills in some of the gap between the two novels. What’s unusual about it is that it’s straight military fiction without a war.

It’s 1973. The Vietnam war is over, at least for the Americans. Jake Grafton has narrowly evaded a court martial for his acts at the end of Flight of the Intruder and is now enjoying his leave in the United States. Things don’t go too well: Drinking in a bar after a stormy meeting with the parents of his wife-to-be, he gets mad and defenestrates a guy who’s ragging against the military.

For his troubles, Jake gets an affectation on an aircraft carrier, teaching carrier aviation to Marines. What follows is almost two hundred pages of miscellaneous anecdotes and a seventy-page adventure tacked at the end.

This is not meant to be disparaging: The Intruders is quite enjoyable overall, with its detailed description of life aboard an aircraft carrier cruise. Simply put, carrier aviation is not for sissies: There’s probably no more difficult task for a pilot than to land on the ridiculously short deck of a carrier, at night, during rotten weather where the landing deck can suddenly jump up and down by several feet. Even departing from a carrier, as Coonts shows us, can be hair-raising.

Much like the movie MEMPHIS BELLE, Coonts compresses dozens of exciting incidents, big and small, in one trip. Most of them happen to protagonist Jake Grafton, (Someone is the book says: “Stuff keeps happening to you, man!”) who decides early on that this will be his last cruise. Of course he will stay (see the later novels), but why?

Coonts’s characters have always been fairly interesting, and he surpasses himself in The Intruders. Not only are Grafton’s friends more polished than ever before, but Grafton himself acquires an extra depth during the novel: his evolution to the mindset of a professional Navy aviator is very credible. Meanwhile, we get an insight in the psychology of naval pilots, probably one of the toughest job on Earth.

The novel suffers somewhat from the inclusion of a pirate adventure (really!) at the end, another case of “Uh-oh! Got to have a plot!” anxiety.

Exciting, fascinating, gripping and not without an extra layer of significance, The Intruders manages to overcome the potentially off-putting barrier of “historical non-warfare” military fiction to produce a novel that’s commendable to anyone interested in the genre. You will learn stuff, and you will enjoy it.

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