An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature

An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature -- Crime and Adventure, Fantasy and Science-Fiction, Horror and Weird

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Off the Mangrove Coast" -- Louis L'Amour (OFF THE MANGROVE COAST, 2000)

Best known as a prolific author of western fiction (having produced eighty-nine novels and fourteen short story collections at the time of his death, with several further collections to be released posthumously, in one of which today's story was first published), Louis L'Amour wrote prolifically across a number of genres, right up to the end of his life - his final novel before his death, The Haunted Mesa, being science-fiction.  Today's story is not one of L'Amour's "frontier stories," nor something as far out as The Haunted Mesa; rather, a story of greed and betrayal, the lack of honor among thieves, set against the crystalline waters of the South China Sea.  One of his later stories, "Off the Mangrove Coast" was found several years after L'Amour's passing in a carbon paper box L'Amour had taken from an aluminum factory in Germany at the end of WWII.  It was initially published in 2000, having not sold to the magazines during his lifetime, in an anthology collection under the same title.

"Off the Mangrove Coast" finds our nameless narrator -- known simply as "Scholar," as he'd brought a few books with him on his journey -- on a stolen yacht in the South China Sea with three unsavory characters from across the globe; Limey Johnson from Liverpool, Smoke Bassett from Port-au-Prince, and Long Jack from Sydney.  They're sailing in search of a sunken freighter Limey Johnson claims knowledge of, drowned with $50,000 in the captain's safe.  Each man dreams of what he's going to do with his share, $12,500...or will it be larger? For as Scholar reflects, "who can say what can or cannot happen in the wash of a weedy sea off the mangrove coast?"

The sunken freighter located, it falls to the Scholar and Limey to dive down for it, they being the only two with experience in a diving suit.  Braving hungry sharks and the inherent dangers in diving in ten fathoms of water, Scholar finds the worst perils are awaiting him back on the ship as he learns who's looking to kill for his share of the treasure...and who will put their life on the line to protect him.

With incredibly taut pacing and a lean, pared-down style, L'Amour has hit this one out of the park.  Add in an exotic locale described evocatively without losing that lean style, a bloodthirsty shark, double-crosses and a ghoulish method of sending a man to his death involving aforementioned shark...this story was a real winner, one of my favorites of the book so far.

The biggest highlight of the story, for me at least, was the climactic fight between Scholar and one of the men (won't tell you who) looking to kill him for his share of the treasure.  Scholar has managed to arm himself with a harpoon, but is hampered by the fact he's still wearing a bulky rubberized diving suit with weighted boots, and his opponent is unhindered and armed with a boat-hook -- which has a much longer reach then the harpoon.  L'Amour gives us a detailed break-down of Scholar analyzing the situation and figuring out how to fight effectively in these conditions, without losing high-octane pace the fight requires to maintain the reader's sense of tension.  It's really a great piece of work.

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