In Afghanistan, Lieutenant Black is dispatched from the relatively secure and administrative environment of Forward Operating Base Omaha to investigate a complaint at Combat Outpost Vega up the valley to the north. The Valley (published in 2015) is basically a detective novel in a war zone, or combat noir.
What Black investigates is an allegation that the infantry unit at Vega used excessive force in calming the villagers during a tense visit. Nobody was killed or injured during the excessive force incident. Black knows he will not get a friendly reception since he is basically a desk soldier being sent to interrogate soldiers who are spending every day fighting for their lives about a trivial incident. But the reaction Black gets is more than chilly. It is disrespectful, evasive, and venomous. Through a painful series of interviews, a disastrous visit to the village, and glimpses of the commander’s personal possessions, Black becomes convinced that there is more than meets the eye at Vega.
Where The Valley soars is in its dark atmosphere, detailed military authenticity, and its careful ratcheting up of the tension surrounding the unknown mischief at Vega. Black is not a conventional hero. There’s a reason he’s been doomed to a desk job, although we’re not sure why. He is cynical and almost friendless. He appears to have a casual attitude about drugs, which is not impressive in an officer. But the men he’s charged to investigate are even worse: an insubordinate gang of sullen hotheads running Vega like a cross between Lord of the Flies and Kurtz’s station in Heart of Darkness.
Renehan manages to create true suspense and curiosity in the reader’s mind about what Black will uncover, and what will happen when he finds out the truth. This makes The Valley worth the time to read.
The book also gives an on-the-ground flavor for being forward deployed in Afghanistan, which is essential to understand as an American, a taxpayer, and a voter 15 years into the war. To be frank, it is amazing how little time and attention has been given by the news media and presidential candidates to discuss the vital subject of America’s involvement in Afghanistan.
A small, minor note: it was tricky to keep mental track of the fictional COP Vega in relation to the village, the “Meadows,” the supply route, and the different observation points described in the book. A one-page map in the front would have been helpful to understand what the characters had to go through to get from one point to another.
The first four-fifths of the book was great, but it became choppy and implausible toward the end. It felt like the author, even at the end, didn’t want to come right out and say what happened, so we kept being fed crumbs and riddles. That was annoying. Don’t get me wrong, there is an explanation and conclusion, but it’s broken up across too many different scenes and characters throughout the final pages. The ending is somewhat happy; for such a dark book with a cynical main character, that struck me as inconsistent.
But I would still highly recommend this book to anybody who likes thrillers, mysteries, crime, or military fiction.