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Seven Thrillers Above, Below, and Around the Seven Seas


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What is it about the sea that has made it a literary obsession since The Odyssey? For me, it’s the mystery, the thrill of adventure, the fear of the horrible beasts lurking under the waves, and the dangerous men lying in wait just over the horizon. It’s the visceral feel of the wind and the waves, the raw smells of saltwater mixed with fuel and fish and fear, where the weather is a capricious character, and the ships are lonely fortresses against the unknown. 

But I find the strongest appeal in how the sea shapes and reveals a person’s character; it can raise men and women to the heights of courage or plunge them into the depths of madness. Who doesn’t know their names: Ulysses, Jason, Ahab, Larsen, Nemo, Queeg, Bligh, Blood, and Aubrey, as well as pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read? 

It is probably no coincidence that the sea inspired the first American novel, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pilot. It also inspired my debut novel, The Hunt for the Peggy C, a World War II-era historical fiction about an American fugitive who struggles to rescue a Jewish family on his rusty cargo ship, outraging his mutinous crew of misfits and provoking a hair-raising chase by an unstable Nazi U-boat captain bent on revenge. 

Here are seven books–fiction and non-fiction–that examine the thrill of life at sea, for good and evil. You’ll notice a common theme: rich historical details blended with superb reporting and writing, something I admire as a former journalist and try to emulate. Not surprisingly, many of them have been made into movies.

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THE DEVIL’S ALTERNATIVE by Frederick Forsyth

Forsyth’s Cold War thriller reads like it was taken from today’s headlines: Ukrainian nationalists hijack the world’s largest oil supertanker and threaten to unleash an ecological disaster if their Jewish colleagues, who hijacked a Soviet airliner, are not freed from a West Berlin prison; the Soviet Union, facing a deadly famine, teeters between negotiating with the West for food or seizing it by war, which will become the only option if the West frees the Ukrainian prisoners who know a terrible secret that could cause the breakup of the Soviet Union. British Intelligence agent Adam Munro must figure out a solution, knowing that each choice could lead to massive casualties. Whew!

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FORTUNE’S FAVORITE by Colleen McCullough

Now, why would I recommend a novel about ancient Rome? Pirates. Lots of them. McCullough’s third volume of her richly detailed and brilliantly written Masters of Rome series is awash in pirates. They plague Rome’s grain lifeline from Africa and the Middle East. They double-cross Spartacus. And they made the bad mistake of kidnapping a young Julius Caesar, who berated them for asking too little for his ransom and charmed them with his audacious promise to return and crucify them all. Once freed, the 25-year-old Caesar returned and, as promised, crucified 500 of the pirates on crosses he forced them to build. 

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THE PERFECT STORM by Sebastian Junger.

This true story is a masterpiece of terror and suspense on the high seas told through the eyes of witnesses, survivors, scientists, rescuers, and sailors. Astounding details about the once-in-a-century storm make this history read more like a thriller. Using meticulous reporting and vivid imagination, Junger puts readers in the heart of the storm aboard various ships and rescue planes, especially the doomed fishing trawler Andrea Gail. His spectacular writing keeps you on the edge of your seat as he explains the science of a hurricane colliding with a Nor’easter over the Atlantic Ocean, the fishing business, rescue operations under impossible conditions, and even what happens when someone drowns.

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DAS BOOT by Lothar-Günther Buchheim

Some consider this book about the perilous life aboard U-96 to be the best World War II novel. Others prefer the award-winning movie of the same name. Buchheim, a photographer and war correspondent on a U-boat, hated the film because he thought it was too Hollywood and overly dramatic. In his book, there is plenty of drama, extraordinary details, and nuanced examinations of Nazi fanatics amid the largely non-political sailors who believed they were doing their duty by defending their country. Read the book and watch the movie. They are both terrific.

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ENDURANCE: SHACKLETON’S INCREDIBLE VOYAGE by Alfred Lansing.

Imagine the terror of having your ship crushed by ice just shy of your goal at the South Pole and then having to struggle for months floating on ice floes, trudging back and forth across the ice in a vain attempt to reach land, sailing more than 800 miles across some of the world’s roughest seas in a tiny lifeboat only to be forced to hike over dangerous mountains in makeshift snowshoes to reach help. The incredible true tale of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his 28-member crew’s harrowing ordeal is a beautifully written nail-biter from beginning to end.

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JAWS by Peter Benchley.

Next to pirates, probably the scariest thing in the ocean is a shark, especially a great white shark with a ferocious and mysterious appetite for human flesh. Benchley’s novel about the hunt for such a monster plaguing a northeast beach town is substantially different from Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie. It has more subplots and more flawed characters, but it is still a terrific read that will make you never want to go back into the ocean.

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THE RIVER OF DOUBT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT’S DARKEST JOURNEY by Candice Millard.

Although on a river and not an ocean, this true story of the former president’s near-fatal exploratory voyage in Brazil has everything you’d expect in a thriller novel: disaster after disaster, disease, starvation, horrible injuries, a drowning, being stalked by a hostile native tribe, and even murder. Through persistence, ingenuity, and enormous courage, a badly wounded Roosevelt and fifteen of his eighteen companions finally emerged from the wilderness, barely alive and facing skepticism about their journey. Millard’s retelling of the fateful trip is a masterclass in research and writing.

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BONUS: THE HUNT FOR THE PEGGY C by John Winn Miller

OK, this is shameless self-promotion. But if you want a novel with pirates, U-boats, dangerous seas of horrendous weather and hidden minefields, Jews rescued from the Nazis, aerial battles, and a 3,000-mile chase from the North Sea to the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, then this is the book for you. Oh, and it’s really a love story disguised as an action-adventure thriller.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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