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Books: Fish and Foul Play

4 minute read
Paul Gray


by PETER BENCHLEY 301 pages. Doubleday. $7.95.

THE WEST END HORROR by NICHOLAS MEYER 222 pages. Dutton. $7.95.

Outlandishly successful pop novelists rarely take the money and run. Against all the nudgings of reason, they insist on plunging once more. The critical risk is great, of course—reviewers and remaindered colleagues are poised to carp. Yet the built-in publicity is there waiting for them, and with it, perhaps, the long-suffering reader.

This year the book trade’s hot-stove league has throbbed with several questions: Can Peter Benchley snatch defeat from the Jaws of victory? Will Nicholas Meyer’s new Holmesian spoofery match The Seven-Per-Cent Solution? Answers are now available, and they seem to be no and yes.

If Benchley was aiming at the same primitive cortex he stumbled over in Jaws, he missed it. Yet The Deep is a better book—more cleverly plotted, less awkward when it ventures on dry land. David and Gail Sanders spend their honeymoon diving for curiosities off the coast of Bermuda and scuba right into trouble. They uncover a vast cache of morphine and opium—medical supplies lost when an Army cargo vessel went down in 1943. A black mobster on the island gets wind of their find and threatens the couple with death—and worse —unless they help him get nefarious hands on the dope. The Sanderses enlist the aid of Treece, a huge Mahican

Indian, to help them salvage the booty and thwart the Mob. But while they are feverishly scooping up drug ampules, they discover greater treasure: a chest of priceless jewelry once intended for the mistress of King Philip V of Spain.

Benchley doles out this tale in the standard measures of escapist fiction: ever escalating shocks at predictable intervals. Early on, the effect can be ludicrous: Will David get stuck in an elevator? Will his wife accidentally drink a glass of hydrochloric acid? What is the meaning of her mysterious nosebleed? Later the blood flows everywhere and the sea is awash with gore: “The moray struck, needle teeth fastening on the man’s neck, throat convulsing as it pulled back toward the hole. Blood billowed out of the sides of the moray’s mouth.” That moray eel, which figures in the book’s penultimate scene, is unlikely to start a craze or appear on T shirts. As for The Deep, it is a competent pulp adventure jazzed up for jaded boys and girls.

Murdered Critic. Nicholas Meyer’s first literary “discovery”—an unpublished memoir by Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick Dr. Watson—pleased almost everyone. The Seven-Per-Cent Solution happily accounted for Holmes’ whereabouts after he was supposedly drowned in the Reichenbach Falls. He was, of course, breaking his cocaine habit under the tutelage of Sigmund Freud. The pairing of these two clue masters on one case lent Meyer’s pastiche a glittering patina of ought-to-have-been. Alas, Meyer has “found” yet another of Watson’s tales, and it should not have happened to anyone.

The West End Horror seems promising at first. The time is 1895, and a theater critic is found murdered in his London flat. George Bernard Shaw, himself an irascible, impecunious critic, interests Holmes in the mystery: Which of the critic’s legion of enemies did it? To find out, Holmes must troop past a parade of London theatrical and literary figures: Oscar Wilde, Gilbert and Sullivan, Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, Frank Harris,

Bram Stoker. They make their entrances and exits like targets in a shooting gallery; Meyer may do a pretty good Watson, but he is no match for Wilde.

No amount of huffing about a “crime so monstrous that it threatened to blot the nineteenth century and alter the course of history” can disguise Meyer’s evident lack of interest in the whole affair. So he, too, falls back on shock. When the killer is discovered, he is suffering from a particularly loathsome disease. The description of his labored confession is a nasty little piece of sadism.

Curiosity and notoriety being what they are, copies of both The Deep and The West End Horror may well litter many a beach this summer. Such success will no doubt convince publishers that when it comes to graphic bloodshed and cruelty, the public is insatiable. And perhaps this is true. Even now, a scrivener somewhere may be calculating: “Suppose when Holmes fell into that waterfall, he bumped into a man-eating sturgeon …” Paul Gray

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