Dead Hand, Harold Coyle

Forge, 2001, 358 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-812-57539-3

In a way, it’s a shame that I only began to write full-length reviews in 1996. By that time, I had already read most of the military thrillers available on the market, and jotting down my impressions could have formed an instructive critical evaluation of that genre, while describing the early evolution of the top authors in the field.

Take Harold Coyle, for instance: He began his career in 1987 with Team Yankee, a story about a NATO/Warsaw pact World War 3 fought in Germany. (In an interesting exercise, Coyle merely borrowed the conflict’s plot from Sir John Hacket’s The Third World War and inserted his characters in the middle of the ground battles.) He would then go on to write exceptional war novels about military engagements in the Gulf (1989’s Sword Point) and Northern Africa (1990’s Bright Star). I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic about 1992’s follow-up Trial By Fire, which took place in a Mexico gripped by a second revolution Mexico, or 1994’s Code of Honor, which dealt with a chaotic peacekeeping action in Columbia. On the other hand, I thought that 1993’s The Ten Thousand was one of the best war novels of the nineties.

After that, well, Coyle started writing about the American civil war, and I can’t say that this is an event of much interest to me at this moment. So I waited until he came back to a more modern setting. Dead Hand is actually his second contemporary novel in a while, after God’s Children, which is apparently unavailable these days. But no matter; I was quite happy to read Coyle again after a lengthy hiatus.

Alas, it wouldn’t be a happy reunion.

The problem certainly isn’t with the premise, one of the neatest concepts I’d seen recently: “When an unforeseen asteroid strikes Siberia with the force of a thousand Hiroshimas, it triggers Dead Hand, the ultimate defence mechanism developed by the Soviets at the height of the Cold War… [Russian] ultra-nationalists are willing to use it as blackmail… a NATO special operations unit is dropped into Siberia, racing against time before a global holocaust is unleashed” [back cover]

Wow! Asteroids, nukes and special forces? What can go wrong with these three elements? Well, plenty-especially when the writing’s barely adequate. There are flashes of the old Harold Coyle whenever technical matters are discussed, whenever the action really kicks up and whenever he extols the brotherhood of soldiers.

But if it wasn’t for the name on the cover, I would never had guessed that this is from the same storyteller who knocked my socks off years ago. Dead Hand, as a novel, progresses by spurts and jerks: it never flows as a harmonious whole. In what surely feels like an attempt to dash off a novel too quickly, we get vignettes and snapshots of people doing something, but never a good story that advances naturally. This is fine when Coyle’s still putting all his pieces on the table, but it becomes increasingly frustrating as the narrative progresses.

The writing itself is also a source of frustration. There are essentially no distinct characters worth discussing: All special forces men talk alike, feel alike and don’t generally act like people we’d cheer for. They do stuff; we read, but never out of any interest for the people, but just for the plot which itself becomes less and less urgent as it advances. It gets worse whenever Coyle steps on his soapbox and starts pontificating about soldiers, their place in society and the age-old traditions of warriors. While I normally enjoy such things, they feel awkwardly tacked-on here.

In the end, Dead Hand feels like a wasted occasion. Coyle even mishandles the asteroid impact with a scene that should feel tragic but isn’t (maybe because the people involved are such idiots). I even thought I saw technical mistakes, but then again it’s been a while since I was conversant in military acronyms.

Still, it doesn’t change that I’m very disappointed in Dead Hand. Though I still believe that Coyle is capable of writing great books, this is exactly the type of novel that should act as a warning sign, and surely represents a career low for the author. Tune in sometime in the future for another review confirming or disproving this trend.

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