Calvin Clements (1915-1997) utilized his experiences in the US Navy to author a number of adventure novels and short stories. After serving in Southeast Asia, Clements would become a fireboat pilot with the New York City Fire Department. Beginning in 1959, Clements would begin writing for television shows like “Gunsmoke”, “Have Gun, Will Travel”, “How the West Was Won” and “Dr. Kildare”. His original paperback novels were nautical-themed and often set in remote locations of Asia. Fawcett Gold Medal published three of his literary works: “Satan Takes the Helm” (1952), “Barge Girl” (1953) and the subject at hand, “Hell Ship to Kuma” (1954).
Clements introduces readers to the fearless, but financially strapped, Captain John Roper. After a disaster at sea, Roper's former employer has relieved him of his duty. Now, Roper is a lowly ship mate looking for work in an Asian port. It's here where our protagonist meets up with Captain Murdoch and his salvage boat, The Wanderer. After a brief job interview, Roper finds his new employer to be arrogant and belligerent. But despite Murdoch's shortcomings, money talks and Roper is broke.
Life on The Wanderer proves to be a hard and cruel existence. Murdoch is a madman, often scolding the crew with Old Testament scripture while simultaneously belittling their roles on his ship. Thankfully, Roper befriends a passenger named Karen and the two have an instant attraction. Karen is journeying to the island of Kuma to become a dancer, but Roper has suspicions that she's being too naive to believe her performances will be limited to just dancing.
While all of this is somewhat interesting, the narrative itself is built around a heist. The idea is that Murdoch and the crew will cooperate with the tiny island of Kuma to steal a freighter of metal. Once they replace the freighter's labor with their own crew, they will offload the metal onto the island and then radio that the ship and it's freight has sunk. Over a two year span, they will slowly sell off the metal and split the profits among the crew. But like any good heist novel...mixing money, greed and criminals is a dangerous combination.
“Hell Ship to Kuma” was entertaining enough but never rises above average. For a 1954 adventure novel, I think the author prides himself too much on describing Southeast Asian ports and islands to readers who will likely never see these exotic locations. John Roper is an admirable hero and his plotting with Murdoch was an engaging read. However, the entire heist aspect doesn't come to fruition until page 100, leaving only 60 pages remaining to tell the tale that matters. Overall, “Hell Ship to Kuma” is worth reading if you control your expectations and don't spend a fortune on it.
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