"Still water runs deep—and the devil lays at the bottom."- Sheriff Ives (Joseph Commings' "Bones for Davy Jones," collected in The Locked Room Reader: Stories of Impossible Crimes and Escapes, 1968)
Captain Allan R. Bosworth served in the U.S. Navy (Reserve) for 38 years and had a secondary career as a journalist and newspaper editor in San Francisco, California, which he used as a springboard to the world of popular fiction – going on to write several novels and more than 500 short stories. Bosworth was "especially prolific in Western tales," but he also penned, at least, two novel-length detective stories. One of them was recently brought back into circulation by Coachwhip Publications.
Full Crash Dive (1942) was originally serialized under the title The Submarine Signaled... Murder in an unknown periodical and was re-serialized as Murder Goes to Sea in Argosy Weekly.
As you probably deduced from the various story titles, Bosworth drew on his Naval background for the plot and this resulted in a fairly original detective-cum-thriller novel. A story with a backdrop, cast-of-characters and a central problem that are almost as distinct and unique as those found in Franklyn Pell's Hangman's Hill (1947) and Michael Gilbert's The Danger Within (1952). Although the Second World War plays no role, whatsoever, in Full Crash Dive.
Full Crash Dive was partially written aboard "a rolling and pitching destroyer in the North Atlantic patrol service," but the book opens forty fathoms below the surface as a new, six-million-dollar submarine met with disaster when it made a trial crash dive – which left twenty-two crew members dead and thirty-three men "remained entombed alive on the sea's bottom." The Navy scrambles to rescue the surviving crew members of the Starfish, but after the rescue (diving) bell takes the first eight people back to the surface they lose the down haul cable. So the mission to extricate the remaining twenty-five crew members from the wrecked submarine has to be postponed. But with those eight people, they also scooped a boatload of trouble from the ocean floor.
A group that consists of the following people: Lt. Everett Brill II commanded the Starfish , whose career was "dogged by misfortune for several years," and it was supposed to be his "privilege to stay until the last," but he had a nasty cough and one of his subordinates knocked him out – so he could be send to the surface for medical treatment. And he may have been drinking before the accident occurred.
The crew members that were among those who were rescues are chief torpedoman and expert diver, Mike Way, whose ribs were painfully bruised during the disaster. An engineer officer, Lt. McQuaid, managed to get out of the flooding after-compartment and had shut a sealed door that prevented the entire submarine to be flooded. However, he had heard several men, who had reached the door too late, beating against it with their fist. One of these unfortunate souls was the brother of the machinist's mate, Cardoni, who assaults and seriously wounds McQuaid. There's also a sailor, Kowalski, and a jittery skipper, John Thorpe, who's a mere boy of seventeen. And the accident appears to have left him shell shocked. Lastly, there were two civilian observers from Westco Iron Works aboard the submarine: a chief engineer, Victor Melhorne, and a naval architect, Foster Bedell.
There's always the possibility that the submarine builder, Martin West, silenced a witness to a potential mechanical failure in order to secure his government contracts to build more submarines.
Lt. Vincent "Vince" Ayres, a naval surgeon, is (for some reason) placed in charge of the investigation, but the person who eventually clears up the case is an "old sea dog," Admiral J.K. Wetherbee, who's laid up with a broken leg in the Sick Officer's Quarters – where he keeps a Captain's Log of the events as they unfold. And these log entries are peppered throughout the narrative. Anyway, the Starfish survivors, as well as everyone else tangibly related to the case, are "shanghaied" to sea aboard the hospital ship Consolation and they sail to the spot where the submarine had its mysterious accident.
However, the events are further complicated by an additional murder, several attempts at murdering potential witnesses and someone goes inconveniently missing. All the while, rescue attempts continue in the background of the story.
On a (historical) side-note, I reviewed Vernon Loder's Death by the Gaff (1932) and pointed out in my post that it was one of the few classical mystery novels, or short stories, in which the old-school diver of the early part of the previous century played a role – with the only other examples being Max Murray's The Neat Little Corpse (1950-51) and the short story that provided the opening quote for this review. Less than a month later and I stumbled across a novel that gives a pretty sizable role to the bell-helmet diver with an surface air-pump. And the story gives considerable consideration to the dangers faced by these early divers.
One of them is that one of the divers is seen getting a serious case of decompression sickness ("the bends"), but Bosworth also used the danger known as "the squeeze." A failure in properly regulating the pressure inside the old-fashioned diving suit could result in the diver being compressed "to pulp and forced into the small globular space of their unyielding helmets" by such squeezes. Such a fate awaits one of the rescue divers in the last leg of the story.
There's also a very memorable, and haunting, scene in which a diver enters the flooded compartment of the Starfish and sees "men floating" overhead against "the maze of pipes and electrical conduits." And there's something else waiting for the diver in the flooded compartments of the submarine!
So, on a whole, Full Crash Dive is a very well written crime novel with the aftermath of a submarine disaster as a memorable background and the subsequent events that result in a number of (attempted) murders, but, it has to be said, the clues are thinly spread around and they're not enough to help you arrive at the same conclusion as Admiral Wetherbee – making this more of a crime novel with thriller-elements rather than a proper detective story. However, the lack of a fair play plot did, in this particular instance, not negatively impact my overall enjoyment of the book (too much). There was more than enough here to hold my interest and found the use of the bell-helmet divers in this story to be very interesting. Particularly towards the end of the book.
Sure, it would have been nice Full Crash Dive been a first-class, clue-stuffed detective novel, as well as an original naval crime-thriller, but what are you gonna do? So read this one without your thinking cap, or deerstalker, on and try to enjoy it for what it is: a damn good read!
Finally, I've selected a reputedly good and unusually-styled locked room novel for my next read, because it has been eons since I tackled an impossible crime story, right guys?