Carl Brookins' new mystery/thriller opens tranquilly enough. Michael Tanner, a successful Seattle public relations executive, his wife, and a friend are sailing the Inside Passage, the waters separating Washington State from Canada. Fog rolls in and rather than turn their chartered sloop back, Michael continues sailing. A break in the fog abruptly reveals an 80-foot, multi-deck yacht riding motionless in the water. Michael's wife gives a tentative hail, but the yacht responds only by starting its heavy diesel engines and disappearing into the fog.
Unfortunately for Michael, the Canadian Coast Guard does not believe his story—and there's not much they could do about it even if they did. Michael cannot describe the yacht in any detail; he saw only three letters of the name—GOL—on the stern as it vanished into the fog. The rest of the book is the story of Michael's recovery from the incident, his growth as a person, and—spoiler alert—his final confrontation with the killer yacht.
The book is interesting because Michael is not a detective and not, when the book opens, even much of a sailor. He's a workaholic pr man with partners running a Seattle agency. Not only is he on his own in attempting to identify the yacht, but, given the small world of fishermen and boatmen who live on the islands and along the coast of the Inland Passage, he's known as the guy who lost his sloop, killing his wife and friend. If the bad guys who ran him down think he's too nosy or getting too close to identifying their boat, they will have no compunctions about killing him.
Brookins, an "avid recreational sailor" writes vividly about sailing and the natural world. Here's Michael attempting to make a safe harbor in a storm:
"The compass needle swung wildly as the cruiser smashed through another big wave and the propeller raced as the wave dropped below the stern.The boat headed down into another trough and the sea rose, curling over to meet him. Tanner's knuckles turned white as he gripped the wheel tighter and he realized he was staring up into a huge wind-ravaged wave. The launch shuddered under Tanner's feet when the big wave slammed into the bow. Water sluiced down the forelock and rose against the windscreen. The light in the cabin turned sickly green. He glanced sternward to see the deck awash with foaming seawater."
While the book held my interest as Michael overcame one challenge after another, I do have reservations. Brookins shifts point of view, often, in my opinion, unnecessarily and in a few places with no transition to warn the reader we're now in another character's head. A passage like this halfway through the book drives me wild:
"[Tanner] had only vague memories of the three figures he'd glimpsed on the bridge that awful day. He couldn't identify any of them. Although he didn't know it, Tanner owed his life to that inability. The crew member who had fired the shotgun into the cabin of the Queen Anne [Tanner's sloop] was the same man who jostled Tanner in the small Tacoma bar. The man swore later to his captain that there'd been no glimmer of recognition from Tanner during their brief encounter. The other crew member who'd watched them agreed." These sentences are the author stepping into the story to explain a point to the reader; if something needs to be explained, the original passage needs to be rewritten.
And because we do have access in a few places to the thoughts and
motivations of the bad guys, it makes the reason for their original
act—running down the Queen Anne—a frustrating and open mystery. All we need know
is that they were doing something they shouldn't; as I read the book it seems the original criminal act was unprovoked.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed The Inside Passage enough that I am sending it along to a sailing friend with a note that he should steer clear of mysterious giant yachts that suddenly loom out of the fog.