Friday, October 23, 2020

Satan Takes the Helm

Popular screenwriter Calvin Clements authored three nautical-themed paperbacks in the 1950s – Barge Girl, Hell Ship to Kuma and Satan Takes the Helm. After enjoying my first experience with Clements, Hell Ship to Kuma, I was on the hunt for his other two nautical titles. Thankfully, Stark House Press timed their newest release perfectly. Satan Takes the Helm, originally published in 1954 by Fawcett Gold Medal, is the newest publication of Stark House's imprint Black Gat Books. Needless to say, I was thrilled to obtain a copy.

In the opening chapters, Martin Lewandowski is a rugged freighter captain searching for work on the San Francisco docks. A timely job tip leads him to a hotel room and an interview with a woman named Joyce. Martin explains to the reader that Joyce isn't particularly pretty, but is blessed with a stunning body. Surprisingly, this is an important part of the narrative. When Joyce inquires about Martin's non-vocational skills and personal attributes, the interview takes a slight detour. Caught up in the moment, Martin kisses Joyce which apparently seals the deal. Martin is then hired as the chief officer on the Trader, an Asian freighter that is currently helmed and owned by Captain Sloan, Joyce's horribly disfigured, aging husband.

After Sloan provides a touching, personal account of his life on the old ship, Martin begins to appraise the boat's sea-readiness. After given full permission to whip the crew into shape, the narrative's first half begins to resemble the early stages of the proverbial sports underdog story. Martin condemns the lackadaisical effort by Sloan's crew to maintain the ship's peak performance, but he also questions their loyalty and work ethic. He's determined to rebuild the Trader into a worthy sea vessel in return for 10% of the profits. However, before you conjure up images of Gene Hackman transforming a looser Hoosier into a champion, Clements injects a femme fatale archetype into the novel's story. Suddenly, this venturesome nautical tale begins to resemble the classic crime-noir.

The author, or the original publisher, chose the perfect book title for this crime-driven story. Satan Takes the Helm is exactly that. As an angel, Martin appears to have rescued Sloan from the red ink that threatens to drown his operation. But once this mysterious, seductive married woman offers up her body, Martin's clear path to sterling leadership and lucrative profit becomes overgrown with evil vices. As the narrative unwinds, Martin's admirable persona has transformed into a guilt-ridden spiral of madness and regret. Is his role on the Trader divine intervention or inglorious malice? That's the slippery edge that Clements navigates.

Satan Takes the Helm is an adventurous nautical tale that surprisingly serves as a sexy and crafty crime-noir. As readers ride the choppy waves, the characters become more dynamic and mentally unbalanced. It's this sort of downward spiral from the promised land to the depths of Hell that made writers like Day Keene and Gil Brewer literary superstars. Calvin Clements uses that tried-and-true formula and places it in a unique setting. The combination makes for a compelling, thoroughly enjoyable story that completely validates the decision to reprint the vintage paperback for modern audiences. Clements rightfully sails again and you should get on board.

Buy a copy of this book HERE


  1. I have always stated that this is Calvin Clements' masterpiece.

  2. I bought the book based on this review. Now if only I could buy more time.