Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Aground

Charles Williams was a phenomenal crime-noir author who often set his stories in rural small towns. Many of his books included a tramp or a statuesque beauty who wreaks havoc on the male protagonist's moral compass. Like his contemporary John D. MacDonald, Williams also wrote a handful of men's action-adventure novels with nautical themes.

“Scorpion Reef” (aka “Gulf Coast Girl”), “The Sailcloth Shroud”, “And the Deep Blue Sea” were all hits with crime-noir enthusiasts and the author's fans. One of Williams' most respected works is the 1963 suspenseful sea-thriller “Dead Calm”. The novel was adapted for cinema in 1989 and featured Nicole Kidman and Sam Neil. However, some readers may not realize that “Dead Calm” is actually a sequel to Williams' 1960 novel “Aground,” so I’m beginning at the beginning.

The author introduces readers to WW2 veteran John Ingram. Through flashbacks we learn that John's wife tragically died in an auto accident and that his former business, a port harbor, was destroyed in a fire that also killed his business partner. Now, John works as a boat broker, a profession that has him inspecting boats and assessing their values to lower the cost for his perspective clients. In the book's opening chapters, readers learn that John has been hired by a man named Hollister who wants to purchase a boat for business purposes. After surveying a schooner called The Dragoon in Key West, John calls Hollister and reports that the yacht is in great condition and ready for purchase. John then returns to Miami where he is met by the police.

Unbeknownst to him, John was tricked into participating in stealing The Dragoon from its port. The owner reports that the inspection routine was really just a way to scout the boat for his accomplices. On the night of John's departure, the boat was stolen by three men including Hollister. The whole purchasing routine was really just a ploy to find a suitable yacht worth stealing. John was conned.

After talking with the boat’s owner, a widow named Rae, the two team up to try and locate the missing yacht. Rae wants her property returned and John, feeling partly responsible for the crime, agrees to assist. The police find a dinghy containing Hollister's watch and clothes, yet there's no sign of the Dragoon. Hiring a pilot, Rae and John eventually locate the yacht on a sandy knoll. During high tide, an inexperienced operator ran the boat into a sandy knoll where it remained aground. But once John and Rae board the Dragoon, they discover why the ship was  stolen.

Like Williams' rural crime-novels, “Aground” features a likable male protagonist who finds himself in an extreme situation. While Rae could be viewed as the suitable replacement for the author's obligatory sexy seductress, she's presented as a more intelligent, brave addition to the story's twists and turns instead of a cunning swamp nymph. As a nautical adventure tale, Williams doesn't quite do the genre justice. “Aground” seems to be a high-seas clash as the prey attempts to outwit the predator, but the narrative is more effective as a variant on the home-invasion sub-genre of suspense-thrillers. I can't reveal too many details, but John and Rae are forced to fight criminals in a very confined location. It's this edgy, tightrope anxiety that makes “Aground” so entertaining.

By keeping your expectations geared towards the survival/invasion prose, this book should provide plenty of entertainment. The novel is available as an affordable e-book by Mysterious Press and you can purchase a copy HERE

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