Tenacity | J.S. Law | 2015, Pb 2016 | Headline | 329p | Review copy | Buy the book
Just days after the brutal murder of Cheryl Walker, her husband Stewart ‘Whisky’ Walker hung himself in the engine room of HMS Tenacity, a nuclear submarine on which he served and which had arrived in port just a day or two previously. With all the evidence pointing to suicide, Lieutenant Danielle Lewis of the Navy’s Kill Team (officially known as the Crimes Involving Loss of Life division) is assigned the case. Dan’s mission is to satisfy the division and the company of Tenacity that this was indeed suicide and that there is no need to fear a killer aboard the cramped and close submarine, despite the horrendous violence done to Walker’s wife. Surely, though, a man could have no better reason to take his own life? But why did he choose to die aboard the submarine and not at home? Dan is naturally suspicious and even more so when she sees the crime scene photos from Cheryl’s murder. Dan begins to believe the impossible.
The crew of Tenacity is tight and Dan is viewed with nothing but hostility as she pries into their affairs. They look to the Old Man – the Captain – for signs on how to behave and this larger than life figure is antagonistic towards Dan from the moment she hesitantly boards the submarine. Dan’s efforts to interview each of the crew are thrown into disarray when it is announced that Tenacity must return to sea at once. Instead of sending her male colleague, Dan chooses to head out on the submarine herself. There is no alternative. She must find justice for Cheryl and Whisky Walker and she trusts nobody else to do it. But from the moment that Tenacity descends to a depth of 200 metres, Dan finds herself in an alien world that is intensely claustrophobic, male and increasingly dangerous. Dan is completely out of her depth and at times it’s all she can do to hang on to her reason.
Tenacity is an extraordinarily successful debut from J.S. Law. There are several reasons for its success, not least the fact that this wonderful thriller is extremely well-written, but two big reasons are Dan and the incredibly vivid submarine world into which we are taken.
Dan is a fascinating figure. She has a past to confront but this is dealt with in a highly original manner and it is truly shocking. We learn the reasons why Dan acts as she does but she is also enormously strong and nobody’s fool. She has worked in a largely male world for years. As she mentions in the novel – she is used to sexism and misogyny, she knows what that looks like. As a result she can tell when hostility is built on other reasons. Dan has a terrible time in the submarine, sometimes because of her gender, but mostly because she is in danger. This mix of naval politics with crime plot is handled so well by J.S. Laws. Dan is a flawed human being. We are constantly reminded of this. She makes mistakes, bad errors of judgement. But we are watching Dan going through a process and it is thoroughly absorbing and often worrying. I cared very much for her. Her relationship with her work partner John is particularly interesting.
J.S. Laws clearly knows one end of a submarine from the other as well as an awful lot about what lies in the middle. This is an environment that I knew nothing about. I do fear it, however, and this book did nothing to make me think it a good idea to spend several months of every year submerged in the ocean depths, crammed into a small vessel with a lot of other people. The lack of sleep, the excessive light and heat, the noise, the stink and the exacting military discipline and daily routine – all of these take their toll on Dan and this is quite apart from the stresses of the investigation into Whisky Walker’s death and the fate of his wife. The submarine is manned by several dominant personalities, most of whom we judge by their behaviour towards Dan. It is an extraordinary environment in which to place a thriller and it works brilliantly.
There is nothing I didn’t like about Tenacity. The submarine setting and Dan’s character are complimented by a plot worthy of them. I had some idea of what was going on but I found the conclusion entirely satisfying. The tension and menace are keenly felt and they are paid off. It is clear that Lieutenant Danielle Lewis is a detective with a literary future and I would jump at the chance to read another. Fingers crossed!