Dead Calm, by Charles Williams
Dead Calm is as tightly written and tautly constructed a thriller as you could ever hope to read. I don’t even like thrillers as a rule, but if this is what the genre can do I may have to reconsider that position.
Newlyweds Ingram and Rae are on their honeymoon – a leisurely yacht trip aboard the Saracen, sailing the Pacific with no set destinations or deadlines. Ingram’s an experienced sailor and Rae’s a quick learner, and the days are long and beautiful and it’s good to be alive.
As the novel opens they’re becalmed – no wind and no sign of how long until they get some. They don’t mind – they’re not in any hurry. As they sit there though they see another vessel far in the distance, and between it and them a single dinghy with a man on it rowing towards them with all his strength. Someone’s in trouble, and before long that someone is them.
The man in the dinghy is Warriner. He’s a strikingly handsome young man who claims that the other boat, the Orpheus, is sinking; that everyone on board is dead from food poisoning; and that he’s spent days trapped on a vessel filled with corpses and slowly rising water. It’s no wonder he seems traumatised, but to Ingram something about his story seems off.
Ingram’s suspicions grow when a bottle falls overboard, an ordinary incident but one to which Warriner reacts with startling horror:
Warriner was staring past him with an almost frozen intensity, apparently at something in the water. Ingram turned, but could see nothing except the bottle, which was about to sink. It had rolled onto its side again as another swell upset it, and water was flowing into its mouth. A few bubbles came up, and it went under. Puzzled, Ingram glanced back at Warriner. The other had risen from his seat and leaned forward, clutching the port lifeline with a white-knuckled grip as he stared down at the bottle falling slowly through sun-lighted water as clear as air. Drops of sweat stood out on his forehead, and his mouth was locked shut as though he were stifling, with an effort of will, some anguished outcry welling up inside him. The bottle was six feet down now, ten, fifteen, but still clearly visible as it continued its unhurried slide into the deepening blue and fading light beyond. Warriner’s eyes closed, and Ingram sensed the effort he was making to tear himself away from whatever hell he saw in an innocent and commonplace bottle falling into the depths of the sea, but they came open again almost immediately, still full of the same hypnotic compulsion and horror, like those of a bird impaled on the freezing stare of a snake.
Warriner is intent that nobody go over to the Orpheus, but when he goes to sleep Ingram decides to check it out anyway, troubled by a suspicion he can’t quite pin down. On board he finds it true enough that it’s sinking, but everyone most distinctly isn’t dead – there are two people locked in one of the staterooms and left by Warriner to drown.
In the meantime however Warriner has woken up, seen that Ingram has gone to the Orpheus and in a frenzy has set the Saracen fleeing with all the strength of its engines. Ingram tries to row back to it:
Saracen, in a hard-over right turn, was on his left now. He could see Rae fighting to reach the ignition switch. Warriner, holding the wheel with one hand, threw her back. She fell to her knees on the short section of deck aft of the cockpit, but sprang up and flung herself on him again. Ingram’s eyes stung with sweat, and the oars were bending as he threw the dinghy forward. The engine roared at full throttle; Saracen’s bow was swinging off faster now than he was gaining, but the stern was still coming down toward him. Twenty yards … fifteen …The locked and struggling figures in the cockpit suddenly burst apart. Warriner’s fist swung, and Ingram saw her fall. She lay in a crumpled heap on the afterdeck, unmoving, one arm dangling over the stern as if she were calling out for help. Ten yards… four … three …The turn was completed now, and the stern was beginning to draw away from him. He gave one more desperate heave on the oars, stood up, and flung himself at the rail. The dinghy kicked backward under him. His outstretched hands were two feet short, and then he was in the churning white water under the quarter.
The essence of horror is isolation, and the Pacific is very isolated indeed. Ingram has to return to a boat that’s taking on water faster than it can be bailed out, with two survivors he has to try to turn into a crew if he’s to have any chance of ever seeing his wife again. He doesn’t even know if she’s alive, and while the others gradually tell him Warriner’s story what that mostly tells him is that Rae is trapped alone and possibly badly injured with a dangerous lunatic.
He put the glasses back to his eyes. The little point of white thinned and disappeared, then came up again. Was she still on there? What was happening now, or had happened already? He closed his eyes for an instant and prayed. When he opened them and looked through the glasses again, Saracen was gone over the curvature of the earth. He looked around at the slickly heaving, empty miles of the equatorial Pacific shimmering under the sun without even the suspicion of a breeze and felt sick. Automatically he glanced at his watch to note the time. It was 9:50.
That’s just the setup – I’ve barely scratched the plot here. The tension ramps up fast and Williams makes you feel every bit how dangerous the situation is. In this part of the Pacific the odds on finding another vessel to help you are very remote. Warriner got lucky, and Ingram and Rae the opposite. Now the weather’s closing in and Ingram knows his only chance of seeing the next morning is somehow to catch the Saracen without instruments or radio while hoping that when he finds it Rae will still be alive and he can somehow overcome Warriner.
The key question at the heart of Dead Calm, the one both Ingram and Rae ask themselves, is how they can second-guess Warriner. When you’re “Dealing with a deranged mind—what was the use even trying to guess?” As the book progresses though Williams reveals the nature of Warriner’s psychosis, and with it a moral dilemma that makes this a subtler story than I’d expected. Warriner’s madness has roots, and it may be that with proper treatment and a different context he could be helped. He’s dangerous, but he’s not a monster. He’s ill, not evil.
Dead Calm was made into a moderately indifferent movie, and the key difference between film and book (besides two additional characters – the other survivors aren’t in the film) is psychological depth. In the movie Billy Zane plays an effectively scary Warriner, but the character is essentially no different to an orc or a predatory alien. He’s a remorseless killer, a Hollywood psychopath. The movie asks how Ingram and Rae will survive, but not what they’re justified in doing to survive.
In the book though both Ingram and Rae realise quite quickly that Warriner isn’t simply a deranged mind but also a damaged one. He’s no less dangerous – he’s left Ingram to his death after all and Rae’s not at all safe from him – but it’s not that he actually wants to hurt them. At one point Rae remembers there’s a shotgun on board the Saracen, but the question isn’t just can she get to it and can she use it, but should she if she can? Would it be right, even with Ingram’s life in the balance?
That subtlety and depth is what makes Dead Calm more than just a competent thriller, but for me a great one. The chase across the sea; Ingram’s efforts to keep afloat and catch up and Rae’s to stay alive and turn around; both their efforts to find some way of saving the other; all that is gripping stuff. Couple that drama though with a moral heart and with characters who’re more than just plot vehicles and you have something really quite special.
I’ve no real criticisms here. Williams writes both Ingram and Rae as intelligent and resourceful people, but not unbelievably so and the nautical detail is utterly convincing. At times the jargon is a little hard to follow, for example:
He got the genoa snapped onto the stay, shackled the halyard to its head, and hoisted it. He didn’t know where the sheet was, but grabbed up one of the lines littering the deck, made it fast to the clew, led it out around the port shrouds, through the block on the port side of the deck aft of midships, and back to the winch near the cockpit. Orpheus swung off to starboard.
All of which I think means Ingram did something with a sail, but while I couldn’t follow the technical details the book isn’t too thick with them and they did help persuade me that Williams and Ingram both knew what they were doing. It’s an absolute winner and while I wouldn’t recommend it to someone with no interest in crime or thriller fiction, if those genres do at all appeal this is a bit of an overlooked classic.
One final note. To its absolute credit the book, unlike the film, never puts Rae in any sexual threat at all. There’s no hint that Warriner might rape her, no suggestion that being a woman puts her at any greater disadvantage or danger. Threatening female characters with rape is too often used as cheap drama, but not here. Frankly, it makes for a refreshing change.
None that I know of, but Guy Savage has reviewed several other Charles Williams’ titles here.