by J.S. Law
Lieutenant Danielle "Dan" Lewis has been with the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Navy for 18 years, most recently with the Crimes Involving Loss of Life Division, also known--to her distaste--as the Kill Squad. She's obstinate, she's a loner, she has the balls to request green tea at the officers' mess. She always needs to be making progress, proving she's doing the right thing, or at least "doing the wrong thing for the right reasons." She forges ahead, often to her detriment. She's also deeply troubled.
Four years ago, her go-it-alone style resulted in a very bad decision. She had suspected a Royal Navy lieutenant in her division of being a serial killer, and went to his garage looking for evidence. She found three women's bodies, "marbled with bruising." When she heard a soft "How did you know?" and turned to face him, his relaxed smile and loose stance terrified her; moreover, she knew she was alone, freelancing--she hadn't trusted her partner with her deduction. "You're going to die horribly," he whispered. But she didn't, nor did he.
Afterward, she was treated like a hero, until her theory about the possibility that the officer had not acted alone was leaked. The fallout--the press wanted to know just how many killers were operating under cover of the armed forces--made her an outcast within the naval community.
Two years later, that bad decision brought her further grief and trauma.
Now, after a long sabbatical, Dan is in Portsmouth, waiting for a new assignment. Commander Roger Blackett, her superior and a good friend, wants to know if she's ready to come back, really ready. She is; as long as she can hide what happened to her, she can function.
Two days earlier, Stewart Walker hanged himself on Tenacity, a nuclear hunter-killer submarine. Tenacity docked Sunday night with Walker on duty; that evening his wife, Cheryl, was beaten, raped and murdered. He was informed Monday morning; Tuesday evening he was found hanging in the engine rooms. Since Tenacity is due to sail again in four days, the sub's commanding officer, Melvin Bradshaw (the "Old Man"), wants the suicide investigation wrapped up before departure. As Blackett explains this, he also says that something stinks. Bradshaw asked for her by name. Why would an old-school commander ask for a woman? Particularly, her?
Dan gets the report on Cheryl Walker and, after viewing the crime scene photographs, takes out pictures of a woman she has been keeping in a lockbox and compares them. The markings are the same: scars on the back of the neck where hair had been cut, welts running down the back and ribs, the pattern unmistakable. Too much so to be a coincidence. But her priority is to rubber-stamp the suicide verdict and ensure that Tenacity sails on time, not to find Cheryl's killer.
Paired with her former partner, Master at Arms John Granger, Dan inspects the Walker house, and her feeling that there's more to the suicide than grief over a wife's murder grows: a missing wall picture, expensive clothes, fine furniture and the fact that Walker killed himself aboard the submarine. Was the murder a message to Walker? Was the suicide a message to... whom?
Later, on the Tenacity, Dan's first meeting with Bradshaw does not go well. She demands that she be allowed to interview each member of the boat's company; he explains why that will be impossible. Then the sailing date for Tenacity is moved up, the investigation barely begun, and the Old Man has made a single concession to the inquiry: there is one, and only one, berth available. If the inquiry is to continue, either Dan or Granger can leave with the sub. Dan takes on the challenge with trepidation, desperate to find Cheryl Walker's killer, who she is sure is on the Tenacity. Granger's departing words: "Don't be fooled, Danny. Submarines are about belonging. If you don't belong, and you don't, they can be the loneliest places on earth."
Dan discovers just how much she doesn't belong immediately--the mood swings of the commander, the hostility of the chief, the sexual innuendos, the heat and the stink, not to mention the claustrophobia, both physical and mental ("No daylight, no news, no contact with family or loved ones."). Law's prose can slam into the reader, but he can evoke unease in subtle ways, too. The submarine's internal edges jut out randomly, "as though the person who had designed them had just made everything slightly too big to comfortably fit." At the same time, the whole place is "too narrow, too dim, and too murky."
Dan is persistent, determined, full speed ahead. But she is being actively undermined. Hostility toward a woman, or an outsider, doesn't completely explain it. When a casualty exercise results in the death of the steward, and Dan is assaulted in her berth, she begins to feel that her task is hopeless. The "dogged, stubborn, and annoying" Dan Lewis seems to be lost.
In his debut novel, J.S. Law has crafted thrilling suspense in a setting that offers many opportunities for confined, oppressive menace. He has also created a compelling character in Dan Lewis. She makes her way in a male world: Walking through the dockyard, "she felt their gazes fall on her like the shadow cast by the twenty-thousand-ton hulk.... It was as though their eyes... possessed actual weight." She is headstrong, she is relentless, she is tough to befriend, but she is undeniably brave. She struggles to face her demons, knowing that secrets drive people away and "stop us from being who we really are and who we want to be." Law ends Tenacity with a perfect segue into a sequel. It can't come too soon. --Marilyn Dahl