Red Runs the Helmand by Patrick Mercer
Fans of Anthony Morgan will be sad to know that this book is the third and final part of his history. Mercer admits that he will miss his creation, who has ‘fought in the Crimea, the great Mutiny and the Second Afghan War, fearing much, slaughtering many and seeing more horrors than ten men.’ In this book Morgan arrives in Kandahar to support a British-backed Afghan leader against local insurgents. As the terrain and the fanatical tribesmen take their toll on his troops, Morgan is also trying to handle the very different temperaments of his sons, both now under his command, in different regiments.
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The action in this book rattles along, and reading about battle lines drawn over terrain familiar to me from ten years of news bulletins, and to others from first-hand experience, gives an extra interest to the plot. I enjoyed the precise accounts of the action, which are easy to follow while not being short on atmosphere. The characterisation of the soldiers and officers borders on stereotypes at time, but they are lively and engaging. There are a lot of characters but the way that they are described and the differences in their idiolect means that it is easy to tell them apart. I particularly enjoyed the way that Mercer allows Morgan to speak in the first person, so that we see the most important action directly through his eyes and in his thoughts. This gives depth to the relationship with his two sons; in the first chapter he is faced with his younger son, Billy, who has killed a local youth in the middle of a marketplace. Meanwhile his step-son, Sam, is trying to put some discipline into the 3rd Scinde Horse, with mixed results. Of course it is only a matter of time before the two brothers resume their childhood rivalry, with consequences for all.
What makes this book such a good read is Mercer’s knowledge of his subject and his use of small details that bring a whole scene to life. For example, here is Morgan describing the very particular atmosphere of the stalls of the Irregular Cavalry. ‘An Indian cavalry mount got a different mix of oats and bran and it was cut with herbs when the men could find them. So the horses’ sweat and piss smelt distinctive – even their dung was a slightly different colour from that of British chargers.’
If you have not read the first two parts of this trilogy, ‘Dust and Steel’ and ‘To Do and Die’ then I urge you to do so, but if you want to jump straight in with this one, then don’t worry that you won’t know who is who, or what is going on. Pick up this novel, and lose yourself for a couple of evenings in the heat, the dust and the particular world of Afghan warfare.
4 Mr Mushroomheads.