Tenacity: A Thriller
- By J.S. Law
- Henry Holt and Co.
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Howard Davis
- January 19, 2016
This sea-going whodunit introduces a compelling, possibly series-worthy new heroine.
J.S. Law’s suspenseful debut novel, Tenacity, about a homicide investigation aboard a British nuclear submarine, introduces us to plucky but emotionally damaged Danielle “Dan” Lewis, a talented Royal Navy crime investigator whose penchant for breaking the rules to pursue clues wherever they lead has aggravated her superiors and held back her career.
The book’s subtitle is “A Thriller,” and while there are nail-biting action sequences where she must fight for her life, there are no Vernesian battles against giant squid, Clancyesque face-offs with Russian subs, or “China Syndrome” nuclear meltdowns. For the most part, Tenacity is closer in spirit to a detective story, with whiffs of conspiracy and dollops of fright.
As the novel begins, Lieutenant Dan Lewis’ 18-year service record is in tatters. Four years ago, she singlehandedly brought a serial killer to justice, sustaining serious injuries and breaking much bureaucratic crockery along the way. Notwithstanding her personal heroism, the aftermath saw her reprimanded and unfairly disgraced because the press got wind of her theory that the killer, a naval officer, had been working with confederates still at large.
She may have been right, but the possibility was abhorrent to admirals concerned mostly about the public image of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. Her sympathetic boss and only confidant, Commander Blackett, has spared no effort to rehabilitate his headstrong lieutenant and help her repair what he despairingly tells her is “the shipwreck of your life.”
Her chance for redemption would come with the apparent suicide of crewman Stewart Walker onboard the hunter-killer submarine HMS Tenacity. At the time of Walker’s death, the vessel was docked in Portsmouth, a few miles from where his pregnant wife had been found raped and murdered the preceding day. Commander Melvin Bradshaw, Tenacity’s well-connected but iron-fisted master, requested, for reasons quite unclear, that Dan conduct the suicide investigation. Blackett tells Dan she should take the opportunity if she feels up to the challenge, and, of course, she agrees to do so.
Her initial shore-side sleuthing in Portsmouth leads her to suspect that at least one of the Walker deaths is related to the serial-killer case she worked four years ago. Following a rather slow start, the story kicks into higher gear when Dan boards the Tenacity and begins questioning the all-male crew about how well they knew Mrs. Walker.
When Commander Bradshaw learns about the questions she has been asking, he warns her to concern herself with nothing but the crewman’s suicide. Shortly thereafter, he announces that the submarine is putting out to sea and Lieutenant Lewis must go with them if she wants to continue her investigation. She agrees, though she realizes that Mrs. Walker’s killers may well be on board.
Most of the rest of the novel takes place at sea. It is a milieu where the author, having served 20 years in the Royal Navy — much of it aboard nuclear submarines — is obviously in his element. Law skillfully evokes the claustrophobic environment inside a sealed metal tube cut off from communication with the outside world, surrounded by hundreds of meters of unforgiving ocean.
For Dan, this sense of isolation is further exacerbated by the fact that she is surrounded by a sea of unfriendly faces. Indeed, almost as oppressive as the close quarters is the relentless verbal and sometimes even physical abuse Dan suffers at the hands of the brutish, misogynistic crew. I’m in no position to say whether the author’s portrait of 21st-century mariners in Britain’s silent service is accurate or skewed, but as an unrepentant anglophile, I can only hope it is far from typical.
The suspense builds steadily as Dan gets ever closer to the truth and to being cornered. After a satisfyingly exciting climax, the somewhat inconclusive denouement broadly telegraphs the author’s aspiration for multiple sequels, if not an eventual “Inspector Lieutenant Lewis” franchise on the BBC. For readers’ empathy with this gutsy protagonist to be sustained through further adventures, though, they will need to get to get to know her better.
While Tenacity is told from Dan’s perspective, we learn little of her physical appearance, even less of her friends, interests romantic and otherwise, or other quirks of the sort that make characters like Jane Marple or Stephanie Plum come alive. She could also use a bit more coaching in the art of sleuthing, as her discovery of new clues is sometimes achingly slow. That said, Law is talented enough that we confidently expect he will continue to hone his own skills, and those of Lieutenant Dan Lewis, as well.
Howard Davis is a former journalist and aficionado of spy stories. He and his wife live in Virginia with their Chinese Cresteds, who have never been to sea.