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Onyx reviews: Inner Passages by Carl Brookins

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 2000

Michael Tanner, a modern-day Captain Ahab, spends the entire length of Inner Passages metaphorically hunting down a whale. In this case, however, the whale in question is a large white yacht. Tanner, his wife, and a mutual friend, on a recreational outing in the Inside Passage between Washington and Alaska, encounter the phantom yacht in a dense fog. The yacht turns and makes several passes at them before successfully colliding with and sinking the smaller craft. Tanner's wife and their friend do not survive the encounter.

With an obsession that rivals that of Melville's hero, Tanner gives up virtually everything to track down the offending boat, risking life, limb and career to do so. He is driven by guilt at having insisted on the sailing outing on such a poor day, but also by rage at the inexplicable, unprovoked attack.

Tanner finds that not many people genuinely believe his story of the killer ship and he has few clues to go by other than three letters of the yacht's name and the distinctive sound of her engines. His friends and coworkers watch him self-destruct and then undergo a Phoenix-like resurrection as he wanders up and down the west coast, hanging out in waterfront dives, trying to find anyone who has a sliver of information about his nemesis.

"Inner Passages" is a first novel, and that shows in many ways. While the linear plot is intriguing and engrossing, some of the book's execution is amateurish. Released by a small Dallas publisher, the book would have been served by a firmer editorial hand. Too often the viewpoint shifts randomly within a given scene. As early as the first pages of the novel characters engage in long expository passages intended to convey reams of information to the reader. Even though Brookins has other characters poke fun at these long-winded speeches, this seems like a feeble excuse to justify this shortcut.

Some of the dialog is stilted and awkward and there are several coincidental occurrences that are too convenient for fiction. Characters forget important details, only to conveniently remember them when they are needed most. Tanner's repeated sabbaticals from his advertising company begin to stretch credibility as he spends summers working at a marina in an attempt to gather information about the yacht that he knows only as "GOL."

Brookins, however, knows his nautical details. His descriptions of the sounds and straits of the Pacific Northwest are vivid and alive. Even when the character motivation is a bit muddled as Tanner enters into a game of cat-and-mouse with the killer ship (and Tanner switches between the roles of cat and mouse from page to page) the sensory details are strong and realistic. The fog banks are thick and palpable. A scene in which a yacht runs aground and then tips over on the outgoing tide is particularly memorable and innovative.

The book is also filled with intricate details of handling recreational boats under a variety of circumstances, some important to the plot and some merely filling in the landscape with accurate - but not overwhelming - color.

Ultimately, though, the book is about the quest for the white whale. During this search, Tanner learns how to live after the loss of his wife and gains a new focus on his career and life in general during the two years that he spends trying to track down the mysterious killer ship that came out of the fog.

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