Under the Radar

John Renehan's Mysteries of Afghanistan


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John Renehan's debut novel The Valley starts off as a detective novel about an Army lieutenant conducting a 15-6 investigation at a remote outpost in Afghanistan. Renehan's Lt. Black reads a Michael Connelly novel at the FOB before he heads up to the Valley and one of the soldiers shares a last named with Connelly's iconic LAPD detective Harry Bosch.

But The Valley isn't really a straight police procedural. Renehan subverts the genre to tell a story about the disconnection of life on the front lines, how the reality on the ground differs from the stated goals promoted by military brass and the Army's internal politics. 

Lt. Black thinks he's going to investigate why a soldier killed a local farmer's goat. Rather than conduct a perfunctory investigation that will allow him to complete the required paperwork before he leaves the Army, Black senses that something's wrong and slowly discovers what's really been going on with this platoon in Nuristan province.

As the violence escalates, the story takes on a more hallucinatory, impressionistic feel more like Heart of Darkness (or Apocalypse Now) than a finely-tuned mystery novel. The truth is revealed, but the solution seems less important after what Black goes through to find out what's been really going on at the OP and the nearby villages.

Renehan was an attorney who worked across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11. After working with relatives of the deceased to put their affairs in order, he joined the Army and served in the Third Infantry Division as a field artillery officer in Iraq during the surge in 2007-2008.

That experience gives him sharp insight into the complex inner workings of the United States Army. Service in Iraq is obviously quite different than service in Afghanistan, but Renehan uses the history of the unconquerable mountains passes of Afghanistan as a key element in his mystery.

For readers who absolutely need a payoff, there's a big reveal at the end that wraps up almost all of the mystery's loose ends. But The Valley is really about how our vague mission in Afghanistan affects the men charged with carrying it out. That's what will stay with you once you've forgotten the details of the crimes solved in the novel.


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