Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Wednesday, October 21, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Tenacity

Henry Holt: Tenacity by J.S. Law

Henry Holt: Tenacity by J.S. Law

Henry Holt: Tenacity by J.S. Law

Henry Holt: Tenacity by J.S. Law


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

Holt, $27, hardcover, 9781627794565, November 3, 2015

Henry Holt: Tenacity by J.S. Law

J.S. Law: Diving into a Life of Crime

photo: Simon John

J.S. Law spent 20 years in the Royal Navy, with the latter part of his career in the submarine service, where he served as senior engineer and nuclear reactor plant supervisor, as well as senior lecturer in nuclear reactor engineering and mentor to future submariners.

His debut thriller, Tenacity, is set in a world he knows well--a submarine on patrol. The twist? His protagonist is a woman, Lieutenant Danielle "Dan" Lewis from the Special Investigation Branch, looking into a suspicious death as the only female on board the HMS Tenacity.

Tell us about your road to publication. How did you find the tenacity to keep going after initial rejections?

Like a lot of authors, I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I think that's such a cliché, but it's a cliché because for most of us it's true! I'd always write; if I hadn't been picked up, I'd still have carried on writing because it's what I love to do. Anyhoo....

About four years ago I decided that I really wanted to make a living from writing and I took steps to make that happen. I looked at what a writer in my genre does--normally a book a year--and I started making that my goal. I'd write a book to deadline, edit it, get feedback from friends and readers, and then send it out. I'd then get a mixture of rejections and silence. I'd dust off my bruised ego, tell myself I needed to work harder, and then go and do that. I've said before that writing a book is an emotional and creative endeavor, but getting an agent and a publishing deal isn't. I separated the two, treating the latter as a project, and just worked at trying to improve my writing. Eventually, it came good.

You experimented with several genres, including fantasy and erotica, before writing Tenacity. How did you discover crime fiction is the right fit for you?

You know, I think it was obvious from the start, because crime and thrillers are what I always read. I love fantasy (erotica, not so much, but it was before Fifty Shades of Grey and I thought it might be a good market), but when I looked at my bookshelf, it was full of Ludlum, Clancy, Child, Patterson, McDermid, Billingham, James, etc. I think I just had to recognize that I wanted to write a book I'd love to read, and that was what I was reading, so I'm always surprised it took me so long to settle down into a life of crime.

I did also have a chat with an agent about my last book [before Tenacity], and he felt my writing was good enough, but I was lacking that something that would make me stand out. He asked me what I did for a living and when I shrugged and said, "I work on submarines," he got quite animated and asked why I wasn't writing about that. I guess I just hadn't realized that something I did every day could be all that interesting. Who knew??

Why did you decide to write from a female point of view? What were the challenges, if any?

Dan Lewis came about because of a short story and I think the theme was set. After my conversation with that agent--see answer above--I revisited that story and just really liked her. She was gutsy, smart, driven and I liked the cut of her jib. Then I started to imagine what it would be like to put someone like Dan into a hostile submarine. From this, Tenacity was born.

Writing from a female POV is quite different and challenging at times, but I get a lot of help from female readers on early drafts. I really wanted to do it, and I think the genesis was after a conversation with my big sister about her time in the Royal Navy. It became clear to me that we had very different experiences in the services, and over time I came to wonder how much of that was due to gender. I wanted to understand how the environment might look through a POV different from my own, and so Dan Lewis became my eyes. I love writing Dan, but she's not easy to write--probably because she's so damn stubborn!

When you were in the submarine service, how common were female investigators? How were they generally received and how did that compare to Dan's treatment?

I've never served on a submarine with a female. After I left the service, or certainly very near to when I left, the first female submariners were just going through submarine qualification in the U.K., but I wasn't there. I do hear lots of stories about how it went on that first patrol and most are positive. I have, however, served with women on ships and I think that as more and more talented women take up senior roles on board, it becomes more commonplace and, as it should be, completely accepted.

How has the feedback been from the submariner community about Tenacity?

This was what worried me more than anything else, but it was needless worry. The feedback from the U.K. submarine community has been overwhelmingly positive and that is such a relief for me. We're quite a close-knit community, and the opinions of submariners--indeed all veterans and serving personnel--is something that matters to me very much. So when those first few reviews arrived that started with "I served for twenty years on submarines...," I was holding my breath. But as I say, a positive response, and I receive mail from current and former service personnel regularly passing on their thoughts about the book.

What can you tell us about life on a submarine that most people might find surprising?

Hmmmm. We eat eggs for a very long time into a patrol, and I mean a very long time. Once I went looking for the chicken, certain there had to be one, but it wasn't on board! I had a rule: when the chefs stopped eating eggs, I stopped eating eggs, because eggs don't last for three months....

Got it. Don't eat eggs more than three months old! What's been your favorite experience post-publication?

The best bit for me is the people I get to meet and chat to. Playing poker with Mark Billingham, grabbing a drink with Peter James, sitting and chatting with Lee Child. These authors are among those that inspired me to write, so just being accepted by them and chilling out is very, very cool. I still want to meet John le Carré, but there's time.

How about weirdest experience?

Getting the [author] pictures done! Jeez, why do we have to do that? "Okay, James, tip your left shoulder forward, chin up, eyes over here, right shoulder back. Give me more lips, tilt your head!" I was like, "I'm a twenty-year time served military veteran, not a contortionist. Just take the damn picture!"

Ha! The perils of being a published author. Since you mentioned in an interview with Shots magazine that you wished to be asked about your singing ability, what's your go-to karaoke song, and why that one?

Good question. If I have a willing partner, then I'd go with "Paradise by the Dashboard Light." Love really letting go to that bad boy!

If I'm alone, maybe "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" or "Hey Jude." If I'm a cappella, then I'd go with some Mac Davis, because it is always hard to be humble... If I'm feeling blue, a bit of "Lady in Red."

If I've just plain had too much to drink, I'd go for "American Pie." Got to love that track! But if I'm really looking to hit the spot, you can't beat "Heart of Oak." --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd

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