Sunday, 20 December 2009

“The Assault on Mavis A”, Norman Stahl

Lately I've been revisiting a whole number of books read a long time ago. Norman Stahl's “Assault on Mavis A”, long out of print, and properly obscure, was last read in my mid-teens, when I would devour thrillers at a ridiculous pace. Now, after 25 or so years, a second look seemed appropriate.

Sparked by now working in the shipping industry, and the discovery of an engaging if dormant list of nautical related fiction, eBay readily yielded a cheap, to be honest fairly tatty copy of it, and over the course of this wintery Sunday afternoon, it's been duly polished off. One striking thing about it however, is monumentally annoyingly eight pages had been removed from the book at some stage in its life, not enough to seriously impede understanding the plot, but nonetheless a reflection that at times when you pay more or less nothing for a book there are downsides!

Any book that can be hurtled through in the course of a few hours is going to be both undemanding and sufficiently interesting to keep attention. This isn't high literature, but then you can probably work this out by the tagline, which describes it as being “overflowing with violence, treachery, sex … a terrifying suspense story”, certainly a contender for most overblown subtitle in fiction.

The central premise, hijacking an oil tanker and crashing it into an oil platform is reasonably engaging, and Stahl brings a convincing level of detail to the way he writes about the ship itself. The scale of a very large crude carrier and its peripatetic existence moving from the Persian Gulf to Europe or North America is atmospherically brought to life to the extent that the vessel almost qualifies as a character in its own right.

While the plot cheerfully rattles along, it's both too busy and inherently suffers from being pretty full of holes, and the majority of the characters lack a much in the way of depth. More troublingly, it's unpleasant and needlessly violent on a number of levels. As the cover hints, there's a lot of sex in here, and none of it is well written, instead being more prurient than it needs to be. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with sex in a novel, but the level to which it's written in here doesn't quite work.

Ultimately once every quarter of a century is probably frequently enough to read a book like this. It's amiable enough nonsense to while away an afternoon, but it's not something that leaves you particularly fulfilled or informed.

Sometimes it's best to leave books read and enjoyed long ago in the past where they belong.

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