Dead Water by Simon Ings

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Dead Water by Simon Ings

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A decent thriller with an original premise and some shocking twists totally spoiled by an over-complicated structure and an unnecessary touch of the supernatural.
Buy? Maybe not Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 352 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Corvus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1848878884

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The standard advice to artists has always been "don't gild the lily". For those writers who appear not to understand how this relates to their art form, let me offer up a basic translation: don't complicate a brilliant plot!

Dead Water suffers from such gilding.

The overwhelming impression left is that Ings couldn't make up his mind as to whether he wanted to write a contemporary thriller or a "magical realism" fantasy. The two strands don't weave closely enough to hold together and the magical escapades are by far the weaker of the threads.

In 1928 an airship crashes about 75 miles north of Spitsbergen, after a successful transit of the North pole. There are survivors. Some of them set off in search of rescue.

1969-1972: the fall of Persia and Britain's dubious involvement in what we now euphemistically call "regime change".

At about the same time someone comes up with the idea of containers… as in the now ubiquitous metal cases for cargo (container ships, container wagons on the rails, container trailers on the road). According to the book it was a chap called Moyse. As someone who regularly spends time watching the rail freight roll by, I was convinced it was the name of a real company. That's how believable this part of the story is…

1976: in the tiny village of Chhaphandi on India's Grand Trunk Road, it rains. The rain brings gifts and poison.

1995: still in India there is a major train crash: enter the two ghosts that take the novel completely off course for pages at a time. But the crash itself IS relevant.

Sometime during all of this, a young Indian girl has become a police detective and has started to investigate those who shall not be investigated. She is on the trail of the great and not-so-good… a trail that could ruin her life.

The book starts off reading like a collection of short stories. There is a tenuous link, but to begin with it is almost just that: an irrelevant recurrence purely to act as the link. It is not for several chapters that the sense of a single story starts to emerge.

The Norwegian scientists, the Indian peasants and policemen, the British diplomats, American business interests, Somali pirates: they are all intrinsically linked.

The important thread through all of this (if we ignore the ghosts as we easily can and frankly really should) is the notion of Dead Water. Scientifically speaking "dead water" is the term for an area where water of a given density rests on top of a layer of denser water. For example where a layer of fresh water rests on top of salt water. The differing density is sufficient to stop the two layers mixing, just as air and water don't mix. The implication for shipping is much the same as trying to use an outboard propeller that is only partially under water. It will churn up the water, but not make much headway. Effectively you simply create turbulence and waves between the two layers.

If I understand the science, the implication of all of this is that weather systems in the air and current systems in the oceans may change and fluctuate but in essence they will continue to circulate and cannot be halted. They are contained within their non-mixing layers and cannot escape or dissipate.

This idea of a continually circulated ocean system provokes a thought in the head of Mr Moyse. And there are plenty of people out there with a need to buy in to his proposal.

The basic premise of this tale is exceptional: original, believable, scary, and based on real science. The development of the idea from the original Norwegian investigators of the phenomenon through to piracy on the high seas in the 21st century is sound. The action sequences are pacey; the violence succinct and brutal. The research has been detailed: from 19th century Norway through half the 20th century in India, the people and settings and social mores all ring true.

If only Ings hadn't felt the need to be clever!

If only he'd told the tale straight, I'd have loved it.

As it is: it's convoluted, marred by unnecessary deviations and "clever" constructions, and until the final few chapters isn't really allowed to build the suspense and drama that is buried beneath. A few red herrings are essential to plots of this nature; drowning the whole thing in fish paste is a waste. The occasional flashback saves a lot of "telling"; leaping about all over the calendar is just confusing. When you've got a plausible storyline, why cut it with unrealistic magic?

All the more disappointing because of the book it could have been.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

You might also appreciate What Was Never Said by Emma Craigie.

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