‘Rod writes because a man must work as well as fish.’ So says the back flap of this brief but perfectly framed novel. I, for one, am glad Humphris does write because he’s a decent storyteller and this tale of war has an authentic feel to it. Dead Ground packs quite an emotional punch, it treads a dark path and is genuinely gripping. The novel relates a day in the life of Simon Ellice, a British officer at an Afghan outpost. Every soldier in the isolated camp lives with the knowledge that the Taliban will attack at some point. Today could be that day . . .

This is Nuristan, in the mountainous north-east of Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border. Ammunition from the Afghan conflict with Russia can still be seen on the patrol trials. Lieutenant Simon Ellice has arrived back at patrol base Azun from compassionate leave at home for the funeral of his grandfather. He’s angry and weighed down with grief. There’s no fanfare for his return but he wouldn’t want that anyway, he just wants to get back into it and start exorcising those demons. When his colleague Gerald comments that he didn’t stay long in Britain, Simon retorts:

“It was a funeral. They don’t take long.”
“Si, I didn’t say…”
“Let’s just talk about work, Shall we.”

Gerald brings him up to date, its been quiet mostly, apart from a few random sniper pot shots. The only issue is that somehow the ANAs (Afghan national army) have been siphoning off the camp’s fuel supply. The British are training the ANAs to take over the security of the region when they leave:

“Never mind hearts and minds, it’s fucking dollars and afs round here.”

Ellice joins the morning ANA training session, they’re neither enthusiastic nor very good, their commander, Lieutenant Emal Mirwais is arrogant and lazy and the training just disintegrates. Ellice has decided to take the afternoon patrol up into the mountains, Gerald is exhausted from doing his own patrols and covering for Ellice while he was away. Azun CO major Snowhall wants the patrol to check out the other side of the mountain toward Pakistan, there’s a sense that something is brewing.

The patrol stops at the nearest village to the base. While Ellice and his patrol are trying to maintain good relations with the jast, the local head-man, Mirwais and the ANAs steal from a house. It’s a potential flashpoint that Ellice has to deescalate, whatever he decides at least one party, and possibly his commanding officer, will be offended.

Ellice is starting to believe that the post is in imminent danger, as the evidence piles up Ellice acts, the fate of the base could depend on whether he’s right . . .

This is a dark war story, ominous and tense. It’s also a psychological portrait of a man suffering from grief. Ellice’s actions will have a profound effect on his soldiers, is he ready to be back in charge? Humphris is good on the range of emotions experienced under extreme pressure in an isolated base. The formalities of language and rank still reveals the strength of the bonds between soldiers. Humphris paints a credible picture of ordinary local life, the clash of cultures between the British, the ANA and the Nuristan people. The tension of being on patrol and the chaos of action place you right there. Dark contemplative Illustrations by Laura R. Molnar pepper the text. Dead Ground will stay with you.

The second Simon Ellice novel, Go Fast, a crime noir set in Morocco, was published in June and will be review next month on NB Magazine.

Rat’s Tales is an independent publisher, they describe themselves as artisan, they are based in Bath.

Paul Burke 4/3

Dead Ground by Rod Humphris
Rat’s Tales Ltd 9781999651701 pbk Jun 2019