The phrase ‘cook’s tour’ takes on a rather sinister meaning in this unjustly neglected maritime thriller, first published in 1961 as an Ace paperback original from the team of Robert Wade and Bill Miller. It was their penultimate book though a magazine version may have appeared earlier in Canada as ‘The Sargasso People’ in 1959, albeit under their other main pseudonym, ‘Whit Masterson’. It was published in hardback in the UK under that title, this time though as by ‘Wade Miller’. As either edition was tough to obtain at a sensible price I have made do with the Italian edition instead. The hero, Edward Charles Cook, operates a modest charter service flying cargo between Puerto Rico and the US mainland. And now he is in very deep trouble…
I offer the following review for Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her Pattinase blog and you should head over there to both of these blogs right now and check out some of the other selections on offer. I also offer it as part of Kerrie’s 2012 Alphabet of Crime community meme over at her Mysteries in Paradise blog, which this week reaches the letter N.
Death was the first mate
Cook is a tough guy (think Humphrey Bogart after the war) whose cynicism is mellowing with the onset of middle age – he even needs glasses to read poor chap. After knocking around for several years, he has finally, to his enormous relief, managed to settle down and made a success of his small flying business. When we first find him though this happy existence has just been destroyed in one fell swoop. In the newspapers he reads that his last shipment actually contained drugs and that the FBI are arresting all those involved. In a fit of despair he goes on a two-day bender – which is when an agent comes to pick him up. Cook professes his innocence, but the man is completely unsympathetic and pulls a gun on him. Cook, already on edge and still partly drunk, panics and gets into a fight – in the melee the gun goes off and the agent is killed with his own gun. Despite an incoming storm, Cook heads off in his plane, hoping to find somewhere to hideout in the US. After four hours of flight he checks his fuel gauge but it still says the tank is full – he realises it has stuck and shortly afterwards the plane starts to plummet. He crashes and awakes in what seems like a fog-shrouded jungle, the eeriness compounded by a gentle lull … In fact, he has landed in the middle of a patch of the thick Sargassum weeds that give the name to the Sargasso Sea. With nothing to eat or drink, adrift not far off the ‘Bermuda Triangle’, his number would appear to be up. Then, out of the mist, he hears a piano playing …
This splendidly surreal touch introduces ‘The Nymph’, the 90-foot luxury yacht where the rest of the novel takes place. The (none too friendly) onboard cast of characters includes elderly millionaire Andy Auberon and his much younger bride Holly June, an ex-waitress; his daughter from a previous marriage (who is in fact much older than her new step-mother) is international socialite Moya Auberon, a stunning blonde with a wild reputation, who is also the captain of the vessel. Others on board include her ex-husband, professional playboy Tip Summerley, a gambler/bookie Hermes Basko, young cabin boy Griff who just wants enough money to pay for his studies in marine biology, and the rather fey piano player Ferris Lowe. All are members of Moya’s floating court, which it turns out is also marooned. The storm drove a large chunk of wood into the motor and also nearly killed Opie, the ship’s cook. He is just managing to stay alive, but that night someone strangles him with a piano wire. Why kill a dying man? This is then followed by a second murder and a failed suicide attempt, to say nothing of the ghostly return of Opie from his watery grave …
“You’re nothing but a pack of cards” – Cook (quoting from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll)
Like any good travel story, along with telling a ripping yarn, this is also about where the character are really going in a spiritual and personal sense. In this respect the novel is raised a notch or two above the paperback original norm by its strong existential subtext, exploring the way that people seek to govern their destiny yet rarely take the opportunity to really change the underlying patterns of their behaviour. That is of course the theme of the celebrated ‘Flitcraft’ anecdote from Hammett’s masterful The Maltese Falcon (which also inspired Paul Auster’s Oracle Night, a review of which is coming to this blog very shortly). It turns out that all the characters caught adrift on the boat are already pretty much at the end of their tether: Basko is on the run from Miami gangsters; Cook of course is trying to elude the FBI; Lowe is an alcoholic, much given to funereal sayings; Andy’s marriage to his young airhead of a bride is the last roll of the dice from a man who has lost all semblance of self-respect; and even Moya it turns out has lost all her money and is planning to sell her yacht and maybe start running a clothing business. But which one of them is a murderer and is there really a ghost stalking the ‘Nymph’? As provisions start to run out, who will live, who will die – and who will change?
“I don’t expect anything from anyone” – Cook
Right from the first page the book aims to grab you by the throat and keep a tight grip. In all there are 23 chapters in 191 pages, all of which contrive to end with a major plot shift or revelation, which is certainly an admirable feat of plotting and construction. even if not all the twists and turns are as surprising or as plausible as they might be, for the most part the book really succeeds in keeping the thrills coming during its nine-day time-span. Some of the dialogue can seem a bit clunky and even naive at times and maybe the Yacht does run into one or two too many contrived obstacles on its route, though the unexpected attack by seaweed-dwelling super molluscs makes for a very dynamic set-piece.
As we try to figure out who the murderer is (and the authors contrive, despite the restricted cast of characters, to make the revelation a pleasant little surprise too), we are always reminded that the resolution of the murders in no way will save the yacht, which is slowly sinking and which, in an agonising realisation, is caught in a current that is just moving it round in circles. of course, even if they are rescued before the food and water run out, Cook’s own arrest seems certain. Will he get out of his various predicaments – and what about his burgeoning romance with Moya, will that survive the ‘cruise’, or will everyone just revert to type once the danger is passed? All these questions are satisfactorily answered by the turn of the last page.
This is a prime candidate for reprinting either by Stark House Press or Hard Case Crime and I hope to see it in a new edition soon.
A detailed profile of the team, and an interview with Robert Wade (who is still with us as age 92 and writing book reviews for the San Diego Union-Tribune) can be found over at the Mystery File website, www.mysteryfile.com/Wade/Miller.html.