Written by Sam Lopez — Luke manages a recording studio in a seedy part of London. After intervening one night to stop a particularly brutal mugging, he meets the victim’s daughter, Tara. He has dinner with her, they end up in bed, and before you know it, a year has passed and they are travelling together in the Philippines. The thrill of their initial meeting and the early days of travelling have long faded. In its place is boredom and, on Tara’s part, a feeling that she is wasting her life and needs to get back to England.
Tara’s festering resentment towards her travel partner is temporarily shelved by a trip to a remote, hardscrabble island called Oras. Along with two other young travellers they meet up with – American Jake and German hippie, Roland – they have a series of increasingly fraught encounters with the locals. Just when things are beginning to get out of control, they meet Eduardo, a long-term English expatriate who lives on a remote stretch of Oras. He’s a lovable rogue, full of adventure stories and faux Eastern mysticism. Eduardo makes the young travellers what seems like an impossibly good proposition. He is going to take his luxury yacht, named the Blue Beard, on a little trip to an unchartered reef where he’s heard there’s the wreck of a Japanese destroyer. Would they like to crew for him in exchange for unlimited diving and a ticket off Oras?
Of course they would and, of course, things do go wrong. Very wrong.
Sam Lopez, the author of Dead Sea, is a pseudonym for two writers who’ve spent time in the Philippines. Whoever they are, their familiarity with the country shines through. Dead Sea is full of beer, Balut (the boiled, fertilised eggs that are a Filipino specialty), karaoke and interesting local characters. The Philippines is an Asian country I’ve long thought has been neglected as a setting for crime fiction. So any attempt to rectify this is going to win points with me.
Like a lot of good crime stories, there’s a sampling of themes from similar works – in this case Alex Garland’s book The Beach, and the 1977 Peter Yates film The Deep. But while Dead Sea is a crime story, the book is at its strongest when dissecting the worldview of the long term Western tourist, the way prolonged travel can be both enormously exciting and boring, and what can happen when foreigners who feel they have seen everything suddenly realise they don’t have a clue what is going on.
The structure of the book, a series of interweaving flashing backs and forwards, takes a bit of getting used to and will annoy some readers. Similarly the ending is a bit abrupt and will either leave you blown away or disappointed. Dead Sea a strangely compelling read, with interesting characters, set in a country Western readers seldom hear anything about. It’s well worth your time.
Crime Wave Press
CFL Rating: 3 Stars