Local author pens first novel, a ‘heart-in-your-throat’ thriller

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Larry Mulkerin plumbed his own adventures to create compelling characters and a heart-in-your-throat thriller through his first novel, “The Ayatollah’s Suitcase.”

The recently retired Walla Wallan tapped into a time when he was in covert operations as a U.S. Army Green Beret physician after interning at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and five decades as a radiation oncologist who treated more than 7,000 cancer patients.

He also was a clinical professor and “saw some of the best and worst of the profession,” he said at larrymulkerin.com. “They were never as bad as the quack clinics that I investigated, but academia isn’t immune from the hazards of braggadocio.”

Through clinical research he sought funding from Congress and lobbied for the American Cancer Society to restrict smoking on airplanes.

“I spent time in Iranian Kurdistan a long time ago and went to Afghanistan six years ago. I’m less proud that I worked carnivals as a preteen. Learning the art of cheating made me better at recognizing it.”

“Special forces guys I was with encouraged me to take advantage of local girls whether they wanted to or not. There’s a culture in our military that’s women-hating. A strange sense of honor,” he told me. When in Afghanistan, it was more complicated. He worked in a women’s hospital where 16,000 babies were delivered using midwives. Mulkerin worked on gender sensitivity issues there.

In his book, he tried “to show the humanity of those who believe different things, including this naive Muslim girl in the story. Lots of people want to make it better, the corruption problem.”

“We treated Kurds from the back of a truck, in fields and in mud-brick huts. I was 27 at the time and the Army wanted us to win the minds and hearts of the people,” Mulkerin wrote on Facebook. “I thought that we were doing good things, with purity of heart, and a superior skill set, if not an endowment of greater brain power. Fifty years later, I’m beginning to understand why I was there. It took a few bumps on the noggin, but things are getting clearer.”

Out of all this exposure, the author created idealistic protagonist Declan “Deck” Sullivan, a redheaded Irish-American oncologist with black ops Green Beret service in Iran and Afghanistan. Deck has, shall we say, high self-esteem and the wherewithal to get out of tight spots, kick butt or kill on behalf of friends and family.

The book “tries to show how major forces in the world impact each other and cause problems with innocent people in the middle.” The innocent get caught between powerful men and countries at war, Mulkerin said.

Deck returns to the Iran-Iraq border, leaving behind his beloved wife, estranged by his righteous belief in his cause and the obligation he felt to return.

The story is harsh when Deck is in the Middle East. The narrative can be especially difficult for readers unfamiliar with 24-hour, unceasing devastation, ongoing fear and stress of living in a war-torn region showered unceasingly by inhumane aggressors spewing political vitriol, bullets and bombs and the brutal destitution and homelessness suffered by Kurds and other helpless people in their path. Mulkerin gets the point across.

An aging cleric — the story’s ayatollah — is hell-bent on bringing America to its knees. Well, actually annihilating it.

“I chose the title, ‘The Ayatollah’s Suitcase” for what sits in the middle, a physical focus of things to tell a bigger story,” Mulkerin said. “The suitcase carries the power of what people believe it contains. Everyone has an idea of what it contains and it leads to the way they react to it.”

“The ayatollah is certain he will participate in Armageddon. He’s convinced he will do it and interprets from the Koran that rivers of molten copper will come across the Earth and burn the infidels to the bone and wants to be there when it happens. He’s a screwball.”

Some people think the suitcase is a nuclear bomb. “They existed in the ’70s and there were arguments between the ayatollahs about using nuclear weapons,” Mulkerin said.

He added the CIA spent piles of money to make the suitcases smaller and more powerful, but ultimately the devices didn’t work. “They had Green Berets plant the thing but it was all a sham to them. They let the enemy think it was real.”

Deck double-crosses the ayatollah and escapes to his home in Seattle where a friend funds the construction of a new oncology center for him on the downtown waterfront next to the ferry docks. But just as Salmon Rushdie was under a fatwa, so is Deck under threat of being assassinated. On his home turf. The story is rife with tension. It’s quite an adventure.

Mulkerin and wife Judy raised four sons and a daughter in Walla Walla. He set up the cancer program at St. Mary Medical Center and recruited the first medical oncologist to Walla Walla. Following work begun by Dr. Korth Bingham and Dr. Peter Brooks, Mulkerin expanded the Blue Mountain oncology program to a nine-hospital consortium, which collected cancer data for the state of Washington, except Puget Sound. He writes a column in the Union-Bulletin and his radio and television work have addressed issues involving alternative medicine.

Annie Charnley Eveland can be reached at annieeveland@wwub.com or afternoons at 526-8313.

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