Frederick Lorenz was the pseudonym used by Lorenz Heller (1911-????) for a handful of paperback crime novels released by Lion Books in the 1950s. The New Jersey native worked as a seaman on a freighter, so it’s only fitting that I’m introduced to his body of work through his shipwreck novel A Rage at Sea from June 1953. Best of all, the book has been reprinted by Stark House Crime Classics as a double along with Lorenz’s A Party Every Night and an informative introduction by Nicholas Litchfield.
The protagonist of A Rage at Sea is Miami drunkard Frank Dixon, a former boat captain who lost his ship in a poker game and now is in the process of drinking himself to death. Out of nowhere, an opportunity arises for Dixon to captain a rich man’s yacht on a four-month cruise through the Bahamas and into the Virgin Islands. Broke and in need of a change, Dixon accepts the gig.
The owner of the yacht is an obese and lazy millionaire playboy named Charles Allard who doesn’t know the first thing about boating. He relies on Theron Addams, his right-hand man, purser, cook, and steward. Addams is also a con-man fueled by greed and love of money ripping off Allard every day of the journey. Dixon’s only reliable ally on the boat is the young engineer named Wirt, but he’s not a man you ever want to cross.
Many authors of nautical fiction fall into the trap of getting extra-technical with their level of boating detail in the narrative. Fortunately, Lorenz avoids that literary pitfall. Nearly the entire first half of the paperback was at-sea, but the reader was able to follow the action without any trouble because the author made the narrative about the four main characters. In fact, I can’t recall a lean crime paperback from the 1950s with character development handled more adeptly than A Rage at Sea.
It’s almost halfway through the novel that an accident leaves the foursome stranded on a deserted Caribbean island - as promised in the book’s synopsis. It’s then that the slow-burn novel begins to boil a bit, but it remains a character drama with shifting alliances and resentments simmering from their time at sea together. The bad blood and bruised egos evolve into threats of real violence and acts of compromised ethics and actual heroism.
A Rage at Sea isn’t particularly action-packed, but the author’s excellent writing keep the pages flying by. To be sure, it’s an odd book - more cerebral than most paperbacks of its type. Dixon is a flawed, but logical, mostly honorable and highly-competent, hero. He’s exactly the kind of guy you’d want to be stranded with on a deserted island. I really liked A Rage at Sea, but I could see it being polarizing for readers who want a bit more swashbuckling in their maritime adventures. Recommended.
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