Book Review: John F. Dobbyn’s Adventure Tale 'Deadly Depths' - 27 East

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Book Review: John F. Dobbyn’s Adventure Tale ‘Deadly Depths’

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John F. Dobbyn's

John F. Dobbyn's "Deadly Depths."

author on May 25, 2023

I couldn’t believe that I, a woman of (ahem) “a certain age,” was rapt over and wrapped up in a story about pirates, but John F. Dobbyn’s exciting new adventure tale “Deadly Depths” got to me, especially in the sections about Sir Henry Morgan (of rum and piracy fame). The 17th century Welsh privateer’s raids on enemies of the British Empire (mainly Spain) earned him not only reputation and money, but eventually the lieutenant governorship of Jamaica from whose plantations he continued to acquire wealth, status and power. His legendary life at sea is recorded in italicized passages in Dobbyn’s narrative in the form of a diary kept by the fictional Dylan Llewellyn, a Welsh youngster who flees poverty and boredom and signs on to one of Captain Morgan’s ships. Amazingly, the diary survives centuries at the bottom of the sea in a sunken ship and it provides a clue to locating a rare treasure — which is at the heart of Dobbyn’s plot which takes place in present time.

Dylan, as the diary shows, was quick to learn the ropes (all senses) and became an admirer and confidante of Morgan who, among his many acquisitions, hid for safe keeping a priceless jewel-laden golden sculpture that once belonged to an indigenous tribe. It’s rumored to be somewhere in some remote jungle, but it has come to the attention of five archaeologists who constitute a kind of international professional club, recently exchanging information about the treasure. The hope is that the more idealistic among them want to find the artifact and return it to its rightful heirs. The less idealistic, of course, have other ends in mind. Add in to the plot that there seems to be a curse on those who attempt to find it. Murders and attempted murders pile up. The story opens with the one of the group found dead.

Said to be a suicide, the corpse is of Professor Barrington Holmes, the kindly college mentor of our hero, law professor Matthew Shane who, after a bad start trying to impress his professor when he was a student, becomes a dedicated acolyte and a substitute son. Matt, who recounts the tale, is convinced that suicide did not occur and promises Holmes’s widow to find out the truth. Careful sleuthing reveals he’s right but also shows that someone deliberately set up the murder to look like a poor attempt at suicide in order to get Matt involved, knowing his expertise in science and deep-sea diving. The chase is on — as Matt finds out that Professor Holmes’s archaeological group called itself “The Monkey’s Paw” — a reference to an eerie, early 20th-century tale of wishes and curses by W.W. Jacobs that used to be taught in high schools. The novel also briefly references Coleridge, Melville, Lewis Carroll and more broadly the fugitive world of Maroons, fugitive slaves originally from the Ashanti tribe in Ghana who worshipped the golden icon. Their descendants wish no one well who would try to find and exploit it.

“Deadly Depths” is an entertaining book but odd in its occasional disproportionate inclusions — passages on luxury restaurants, food and drink, residences, clothing, yachts and more — but also full of moody descriptions of impenetrable backwaters “steaming swamplands thick as mist with disease-carrying mosquitoes, venomous snakes, flesh-eating predators, and the unseen threats of dysentery, cholera, and yellow fever.”

The writing is brisk and confident but the unnecessary details, intended to show off the author’s research or direct experience, do not ultimately distract from the story. And besides, it’s instructive to learn that Marseille, “one of the three oldest cities of Europe,” started by the Greeks in 600 B.C., still has charming areas as well as drug depots, and that “the French national anthem, which drove the Revolution, was first sung in Paris by Marseille volunteers.” A few pages later, readers are treated to a history of the Aztecs whom Morgan met and to whom the golden sculpture was entrusted as a symbol of their ancient culture. Readers also get a brief cultural history of the Ashantis.

Despite the obvious set passages, “Deadly Depths” is an intriguing summer read that could well interest young adults as well as older folk looking for something different.

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