For the sake of full disclosure, I am not a huge fans of thrillers, particularly thrillers involving ships. The plots often strike me as implausible and the descriptions of the ships and ship operations often border on the laughable. (Too often, they leap across the border.)
This is not the case however with R.E. McDermott’s Deadly Straits. The book is a maritime thriller whose plot is disturbingly plausible. And unlike virtually every other thriller I have come across which features ships, Deadly Straits consistently gets it right. It is a thriller that even a thriller skeptic and ship geek can love.
For readers who know nothing about ships, the world depicted in Deadly Straits will be engaging and vivid, as opposed to broadly drawn and vague, as is so often the case. For those who have spent time in the marine industry, the novel is refreshingly on target and the characters are entirely familiar. The captains, mates and engineers sound like captains, mates and engineers. In some respects, it is like visiting old friends.
Deadly Straits travels from the anchorages and drydocks at Singapore, to the backwaters of Malaysia, to shipping offices in London, though the Straits of Malacca, and to the Panama Canal, with stop-overs in Chechnya, Teheran and Langley,Virginia. It is fast paced, multilayered and gripping.
We meet the central character of the book, Tom Dugan, climbing out of tanker ballast tank in Singapore. He is a port engineer and marine surveyor – a skilled professional, a bit rough around the edges and yet not unsophisticated, having traveled the world as an operating engineer on ships, or meeting the ships as a consulting engineer. He works well as the thriller protagonist because while being smart and educated, he also regularly gets grease beneath his nails. He moves easily between insight and action as the novel requires.
The bad guys are refreshingly diverse. Some are motivated by religious fanaticism, while others act from old fashioned greed. Several are driven by a quest for political advantage. They are as nasty, sadistic and duplicitous as we expect and need them to be.
Finally, what makes the book so gripping is that, unlike many thrillers, it is wholly plausible. If 9/11 demonstrated that passenger aircraft could be used as flying bombs, Deadly Straits suggests the potential for using large tankers as weapons in major world straits, making them deadly straits, indeed. The plot is frightening because the potential is so real.
Deadly Straits is R.E.McDermott’s first book. I hope he keeps writing. I think I would enjoy spending more time with his protagonist, Tom Dugan. Deadly Straits is a gripping read – highly recommended.