Tim Kelly grew up in 1960s Galveston, Texas, a border city with a long history of being terrorized into lawlessness by drug cartels from Northern Mexico. He left home at the age of fourteen to escape the unacceptable behavior of a ne’er-do-well father. While conjuring up his street smarts, Kelly learned about the value of choosing loyalty to friends over that of authority from a couple of highly disparate mentors: Rodolfo Guzman, a cartel leader, and Dave Holt, a local sheriff.
Kelly shouts the sixties mantra of “question authority” with the consequences-be-damned recklessness of a young man who will be true to his heart, even if it lands him into chaos. Indeed, trouble will stick to him like maggots to a dismembered body in Jim Gilliam’s sweaty guns n’ ammo action thriller Tarnished Hero.
As a Petty Officer in the United States Coast Guard, Kelly demonstrates his lack of respect for authority with extreme prejudice, enough to land him in a courts-martial. It is only with reference to his acts of bravery in Vietnam that his defenders are able to keep him out of prison.
That will not be good enough for his accusers who, in a wink toward the military-industrial complex, decide to splice this knowledge of his grace under pressure into an offer that he cannot refuse: Kelly can walk free after completing the dangerous mission of infiltrating and destroying a drug cartel, that of Rodolfo Guzman, the man who had always been like a father to him. At the same time, Kelly’s fiancée is in a coma after becoming collateral damage in a brutal combat between the Campechee and Sineloa drug cartel.
It is when Kelly accepts an open invitation to spend some time in Guzman’s drug palace in Northern Mexico that his code of “trusting friends first” will force him to face not only the dilemma of a loyalty to be divided between Guzman and Dave Holt, but also of being thrust into a senseless and bloody border war that has more than a few parallels to the Vietnam conflict. As such, Gilliam’s novel stands not only as a complex and intriguing “band of brothers” romp, but also as a reflection on the evils of unquestioned authority and corruption.
Tarnished Hero is abundant with colorful heroes and villains. The author is deft at offering them various poses on his good-guy to bad-guy continuum and he paces his quick narrative with enough twists and surprises to sustain interest. However, it is important to point out that this will be for most people a “guy” book, one that offers up the kind of violence and gore that its subject requires for credibility. Also, readers are warned that some female characters are portrayed as rather one-dimensional boy-toys, perhaps as a nod to that common stereotype of the era.
That being said, Tarnished Hero is a thriller that can more than holds its own as an engrossing entertainment for fans of the genre.