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Every story was different, and they were all, to his ears, improbable. But not like the Grave Descend. That was not merely improbable; it was weird. Even the name of the ship was weird.

So, John Lange. It’s the pseudonym of a somewhat famous author, back before he struck it big and really came into his own. I’m not going to give it away; a quick Google will do that for you if you’re really curious. (In part because knowing the real name meant I made unavoidable comparisons to the author’s better, later works.) Hard Case Crime reprinted two of John Lange’s novels—I think there were five, all told—roaring thrillers from the late ’60s, early ’70s.

HCC 026 - 2006 - Gregory Manchess. I wish I could find a picture of the original because it is AWFUL. Manchess's awesome retro cover will have to suffice.

We start with James McGregor, professional diver, hired to salvage a sunken pleasure yacht (the titular Grave Descend) off the coast of Jamaica. But things don’t add up; everyone and everything related to this yacht smells fishy, all contrived and too specific. We learn this through a long sequence of exposition-via-dialogue; it’s an interesting technique, but one that left me unimpressed. (If I can see through the characters’ lies, then McGregor can. And a large part of this novel turns out to be plot exposition in one form or another.)

But what seemed like basic deception becomes more and more complicated; before his helicopter flyby over the wreck, McGregor drives down the coast, only to find the ship’s still afloat. Everything that smelled fishy was far more than that; feint and bluff beget double-bluff, and then, dare I say, double-double-bluff? McGregor’s enmeshed in a Byzantine imbroglio of intrigue, with set-ups real and imagined, with something valuable enough to attract the Mob’s attention. And the book is unrelenting in its tension and pace.

The more I read at the novel, the more I found myself torn. It’s got a rapid, almost reckless pacing; that and the layers upon layers of intrigue keep you reading. And keep you from looking around to inspect the scenery. McGregor’s almost got enough character to hang a hat on, and acts like a stereotypical movie tough guy. The motives of the various players are muddled, and on more than one instance become confused, or ensnared by plot holes—it reads like Lange forgot where some threads were going, or gave up on them halfway, or was confused by his own complexity.

Looking back at Lange’s Zero Cool I called it a big dumb action movie in book form. And Grave Descend is in the same vein, worse in some places and superior in others to Zero Cool; it’s like a better version of, say, The Deep (the lifeless, listing movie, not the decent Benchley novel). It has a strange cinematic quality to it, with a good share of cool sequences—in particular, when McGregor is kidnapped and dumped in a crocodile-infested swamp, was pretty intense. Several of my complaints about Zero Cool have been rectified—much better description of the setting, for one—to the point where I almost think it’s a better work. Then again, the characters felt even more vapid, the plot shallower. Its ending was also a confused mess, lacking foreshadowing or logic.

Like any good ’70s action movie, it’s engaging entertainment, the taut action and complex deceptions keeping you in rapt attention at the edge of your seat. It’s a tad too brisk, its pace working against its complexities at the same time that it builds tension. As light, entertaining beach reading, this is a fine book. But much as with Zero Cool, while it fills the entertainment quota, once you’re finished and have the opportunity to look back, things are more vapid and flimsy than they appeared at the time. So, a triumph of style over substance; sometimes you just want to read a book that’s fun, and this is a good candidate. That doesn’t make it good.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book, or that I’d pass up any other John Lange novels I stumble upon, on the cheap; it was an Edgar Award nominee after all. It’s a middle-of-the-road average novel, and in a line of excellent mystery gems, that stands it apart from the crowd in a bad way.

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