The Maltese Incident by Russell F. Moran reinforced a lesson I should have learned before but after decades I still don’t get it. Don’t judge a book by its cover. In this case, the novel has a perfectly fine, even pleasant, cover. No criticism. As I was reading the first chapter, I thought, what a pleasant premise. What likable characters. This is going to be fun. What followed the first chapter required such a suspension of disbelief that even the effort was absurd. So, a personal modification. Don’t judge a book by its cover, blurbs, recommendations from carefully selected reviewers, or the first couple of chapters. In this case, I had already mentioned to some of my colleagues that this novel looked promising. My friends knew me for the fragility of my promises. But I’ll have to do a personal credibility repair job with them on this one.
In a quick summary that I may or not expand on, the story goes like this. Harry is the captain of the Maltese, a cruise ship. The cruise featured in this story is for rich folks connected to the company which owned the ship. Not only is each passenger fabulously wealthy, each one is some sort of genius or community leader in a chosen field. The boat/ship runs over something, is bathed in a momentary white light, and disappears into an alternate temporal universe. Harry, despite being a retired war hero, seasoned in combat, who probably would have made admiral had he not retired at age 40, calls on the ship’s occupants to man battle stations. Reminded that he is no longer in the Navy, he modifies the orders with instructions to find the nearest bar stool. Once he gets his bearings and determines what happened, Harry will call a meeting to explain what the white light was, why ships formerly in sight of them have disappeared, why there is no radio communication with anyone to include no responses to his Mayday call, and where we go from here.
Believable so far? Sure. While conducting a meeting, Harry notices Meghan, a secretary for the company that owns the Maltese. He like her, she likes him, they fall in love and get married. Courtships take time. The marriage does not happen until Chapter Three of this forty-three-chapter novel. What are all the other passengers doing? They are looking at the happy couple with adoration and happiness. They are not worried that they are stuck in an alternative temporal universe, that food and fuel are finite, that there is no hint of land, and that there is no reason to believe they will ever return to their normal lives. No problem because of the geniuses and excess of resources they have on the boat/ship. There is a scientist/inventor that can make things, like gunpowder out of chemicals available on board. There is a botanist that can identify plants from which to synthesize medicine using plants they might discover when they find land. There is an ex-Army Ranger who can identify animals to eat. And there is enough building material on the boat to completely a build an entire town; wood for houses, pipes for plumbing, wire for electrical connections, what luck! Also, nobody complains because all but one person on the boat is in the throes of adulation for captain Harry and perfect wife Meghan.
Except for one passenger. There must be one or who/what would move the story? I wondered constantly about this as I read. In Chapter Fourteen readers meet Jason. Everyone is leery of Jason because he is not always cheerful, smiling, and congratulatory about Harry and Meghan. He seems to want to be involved in all efforts to set up a new society that seems to be necessary but Jason has no obvious skills. None of the experts in their fields can find a way to use Jason. He has become sullen and other passengers observe him occasionally rolling out a small carpet and facing in a planned direction as he seems to meditate. Oops, Muslim Xenophobia Alert!! Now, I am prepared to be offended. Despite living in a Muslim country, I am not Muslim and I have no great affection for any religion. I am offended by exploitative fairy tales which is why I have reduced the amount of time I spend following political diatribes. Headlines only, I can figure out the bias quickly.
It gets worse. Buster (CIA agent using various names) meets Mike; dressed as a nun, a former imam in a mosque until he became disenchanted with violence, in a coffee shop. Buster is trolling the Muslim community for information on ship disappearances. We are up to three disappearances by this point but two of them have returned. The CIA believes there was intentional interference by some nefarious group. Ships disappear and return through a portal. Mike informs Buster that he has overheard frequent mentions of a “sacred portal” during daily devotionals in the mosque. Voila! What a pseudo-imam is now doing meeting a CIA agent while dressed as a nun is a problem for his therapist.This comes at approximately the 80% of the novel and I have become morbidly fascinated by the idea of finishing this horrible appeal to unreasoned personal animus.
There is no reason for me to be offended by such a novel exploiting the fear of Islam. I have no connection to or interest in religion. But this novel has something for everyone. I am offended by the novels complete disregard for military realism while trying to enlist the military in an effort to save the non-Muslim world. The following situations alienated me entirely and managed to do so in the remaining 20% of the novel.
Harry was surprised to hear that the President (US) had given the impossibly beautiful and talented Meghan a direct commission as lieutenant. Harry had never heard of such a thing (Kindle locations 2710-2711). Previously, I would have thought of this as the absurd situation it is on its face. But with the current administration …
Harry is on a ship preparing to go into battle. There is this: “Meg and I went to the bridge, along with Jim McAteer. I put a helmet on Meg’s head and cinched the strap under her chin. “What the hell is this for?” Meg asked. “We all wear helmets at our battle stations, hon—in case we go into battle. Here, put this life jacket on too.” (Kindle locations 2761-2764). Professional military types do not like presidential directed officer appointments. It is lucky Meghan mastered the mystery of the helmet before taking command of the ship (below).
“Ocean Magic, Ocean Magic this is Navy ship USS Davidson, come in,” Meg said, sounding like a salty pro. Normally we would give our radio code name” (Kindle locations 2779-2781). Yes, this is believable. Let the wife take over and direct the battle using a multi-billion-dollar Navy weapons platform. Sure. Why not? And forget code names. We gave those away earlier in this administration.
When closing to battle we have “(We could) see the Ocean Magic and her captors on the horizon. The Nazis were about to get the surprise of …” (Kindle location 2831). OK, Nazis! We might get an agreement that these are thoroughly bad guys so we can act violently against them. However, in modern times we have learned “There are good people on both sides” I won’t mention who said it; think Charlottesville.
And, a final atrocity. Here is Harry in a phone conversation with POTUS: “I award you your second Navy Cross, I will award Meghan her first. From everything I’ve heard, she deserves it. Oh, and another thing. I’m promoting you to the rank of rear admiral, effective immediately. I’ve already cleared it with the Navy brass. They can be pains in the ass.” (Kindle Locations 2879-2881). Again, in the current unreal environment that is Washington DC, this is a possible outrageous outcome.
Probably due to my status as a retired military officer, the content of this novel outraged me to the point that I have written the longest review I have ever written. It could have been worse. I could have been a Muslim retired military officer. This does not deserve one star but I can’t figure out how to post it on Amazon with less.