Non-Shark Thrillers From The Creator of Jaws
Review by Pat Black
It’s the 40th anniversary of the original Jaws movie, but I cannot write anything about either the book or the film which hasn’t been covered here already.
I can, however, write about Peter Benchley’s other watery thrillers. So let’s hold our noses, and jump in.
The Deep (1976)
Following Jaws was a tall order. How do you move on from a book that sold millions of copies and spawned a cultural juggernaut?
The author was wise to focus on underwater menace, though I can imagine he may well have been nudged into more oceanic adventures through the entreaties of his agent and publishers. Although Benchley loved the sea and the creatures that live there, as a writer he might not have liked being lowered into the “sharks guy” or the “ocean thrillers guy” cage.
Commercial logic dictated that he should stick to a winning formula, and so we got The Deep, hitting bookstores a year after Jaws became a monster at the box office. The iron was hot, and Benchley had another hit.
If you say the word “Jaws” to people, you’d assume most people would think of a shark. But you’ll most likely hear any number of associations, from John Williams’ score to the Orca to Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech, to needing a bigger boat, to some bad hat Harry, to the mayor’s extraordinary anchor-pattern sports jacket, to (enough. Enough!!!)…
However, if you mention “The Deep” to people, then you will most likely be given two points of reference, both of which reside underneath Jacqueline Bissett’s wet t-shirt. Thanks to Peter Yates’ movie version which appeared a year later, the English rose provided a cinematic vision of sweaty-palmed male lust arguably on a par with Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain, or Raquel Welch in a furry bikini. It’s a painfully sexist concept, but it did its job, which was to publicise the movie. When asked about this aspect of The Deep years later, Benchley diplomatically and even gallantly described Bisset as “a very brave and game lady” - who was well aware of the attention that her famous wet t-shirt shots would bring her.
This is a shame, because The Deep is a taut thriller, perfect holiday reading. It follows David and Gail Sanders, a young couple on a Scuba diving honeymoon in Bermuda. They discover a wartime wreck, and inside they find an “ampoule” filled with liquid, which turns out to be weapon-grade morphine. The wreck is filled with these.
Word gets around back on the island, and the couple are menaced by a local gangster, Cloche, who wants to know the location of this underwater drugs gold-mine. Luckily, the couple are helped by local character and wreck salvage expert Romer Treece to vacuum up the ampoules strewn around the wreck. It turns out that there’s something else down there, beneath the 1940s wreck; a sunken galleon, loaded with treasure.
There’s plenty of underwater thrills, including a few shark moments. Benchley had to include a monster, though, and in this story it’s a giant Moray eel which darts out of a hidey-hole in the wreck to snack on unwary divers. The Deep is an enjoyable, fast-paced adventure story and a fine follow-up to Jaws (or at least, as good as Benchley could have hoped).
We have to talk about sex, though.
In Jaws, Hooper and Ellen Brody’s affair is a jarring moment, a curious emasculation of the novel’s hero, Chief Brody. The pair’s bar-room chat in the lead-up to doing the naughty is cringe-worthy stuff, featuring rape fantasies which seem to spool off into the actual sex itself, going by Ellen’s recollection of it. The Deep features a similar sense of the book’s hero being symbolically cuckolded. Two scenes are noteworthy in this regard, both of which made it into the movie. In one part, David and Gail are captured by Cloche’s henchmen and made to strip, ostensibly to make sure they aren’t hiding any magic ampoules in their shorts and sandals. Benchley describes the palpable lust of the men as Gail takes her clothes off, even going so far as to show David becoming involuntarily excited by this scenario, and implanting the phrase “absurd tumescence” into my psyche forevermore.
The pair are subsequently let go, but there’s another scene in which the hero’s wife is stripped and assaulted as part of a weird voodoo ritual. “They didn’t rape me,” is the first thing Gail says when David and Treece find out she’s been attacked, after having been diving at the wreck site.
It’s a bit odd. And rapey.
The Deep is long out of print, but is worth seeking out second-hand. As we saw in Jaws, and as we shall see elsewhere here, Benchley had a talent for the big finish. Although the shark’s death in his novel wasn’t as eye-catching as it was in Steven Spielberg’s film, Jaws had a thrilling finale and a narrow escape for the hero. The same is true in The Deep, which finishes on an exclamation mark.
The Island (1979)
“Okay, we’ve done sharks, we’ve done treasure hunting… What’s next, Peter? Pirates? Guffaw!”
Finishing the 1970s on the crest of a wave, Benchley’s next book looked to adventure above the surface. The Island’s main character, Blair Maynard, is a journalist on the hunt for his next haaat scooooop. He gets wind of several strange shipping disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. So, of course, he goes on an assignment to see if modern day pirates are behind the mystery which plagues this tropical paradise.
That distant crackling sound you just heard was the derisory laughter of thousands of journalists, for whom the idea of such an “assignment” on their day job really is the stuff of fiction.
Ironically, this may not quite have been the case in the late 1970s, a period which old-timers in journalism refer to as the “golden age”. There was lots of money to be earned, being drunk at work was positively encouraged, you could actually make a living from freelancing and, yes, some people did get sent to strange and exotic places for the sake of a miserable two-page spread on pages 10 and 11. The words “paid sabbatical” were also uttered with the utmost seriousness by some staffers in those days, whereas today they are mentioned in the same context as “Bigfoot”, “Loch Ness Monster” and “trickle-down economics”.
So, Maynard takes his young son on this assignment, only to discover – shiver me timbers! –there are indeed pirates patrolling these waters. They duly get captured by… Well… Now, hold on a minute.
Fantasies of front-line journalism aside, The Island was doing okay up until this point. Benchley was getting away with it. Even in these days of GPS tracking, sophisticated homing devices and improved search and rescue systems, ships can still go missing in remote places, and we all know about the reality of modern-day piracy. So, up until this point, Benchley had a potentially exciting novel on his hands. Editors would have sat up and taken notice; perhaps they’d even have scribbled some notes. Imagine a tense pursuit at sea, with fearsome gun-toting brigands, involving drugs, people-trafficking and simple bloody-mindedness on the high seas, as the goodies have to fight to survive. Not a bad premise at all.
Unfortunately, Benchley takes a wrong turn, at a basic conceptual level. His pirate novel is peopled by… actual pirates.
Not tense, stringy modern-day menaces with Uzis and machetes, but actual, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum, ahaaaaarggggh me beauties”, eyepatches, peg legs, parrots and cutlasses pirates.
The gang is a bizarre sect living under the guiding hand of the fearsome Captain Nau, descended from an original 17th century pirate, living by the same customs and rules. As a result they are unwashed, genetically compromised and sexually bizarre, and make Tom Baker’s old sea dog in Blackadder seem like your favourite uncle.
Plus… if The Deep had a little trickle of rape about some of its scenes, then The Island is drenched in it. Women and children? Raped. Blokes? Raped. Animals? Inanimate objects? Fresh air? Probably raped.
Possibly Benchley was aiming to portray the type of rape n’ pillage activities that were all the rage among most seafaring rogues from the Vikings onwards, but this all seems dreadfully unnecessary.
Bizarre scene follows bizarre scene, ranging from a strange albino pilot who accompanies Maynard on the early part of his journey who gets pissed at the helm and crashes his plane, to that crucial “fish oil enema” passage where the whole of Pirate Island defecates for an entire chapter.
You read that right. Fish oil enemas. Freestyle sh*tting. Don’t all rush to eBay at once.
The novel hinges on a strange tug of love between Mayard, his son Justin and Captain Nau, the big baddie. Justin is recruited into the ranks of Nau’s community for the sake of new blood. Rather than being slaughtered like everyone else, Maynard is allowed to live because, for all-too-convenient reasons, Nau discovers he has pirate blood in him, and to kill him would be against the pirate code of conduct, or something.
Maynard consoles himself with a native girl while Justin has a Lord of the Flies style experience with his new pirate buddies, changing his loyalties while Maynard looks on, aggrieved and yet sexually fulfilled with his concubine.
I don’t often say this on Booksquawk, and I’m also saying it about a man whose work has had a big effect on my life: The Island is a dreadful novel.
I first read it when I was 16 after having picked it out from a second-hand bookshop in Partick, and even at that less-than-sensitive age I was scratching my head at its perverse absurdity. Benchley, who comes from American literary aristocracy, including his grandfather, the humourist Robert Benchley, and his father, Nathaniel, and was himself more than capable of turning out a fine sentence, must have known he had written an absolute gobbler.
Maybe it was a lazy hack job written out of contractual obligation; the same scenario as when bands go through the motions to fulfil a restrictive record contract, with a view to getting a better one later on, or splitting up for more lucrative solo careers.
Whatever the reasons for its existence, this book is silly and outright bizarre, with some worrying preoccupations. If it was written as a joke, then it falls flat on its face. The kind of quip you’d make after a few drinks at a party, drawing flat silences and tense faces, following which you simply have to leave.
What strikes me as particularly astonishing about The Island is that, in spite of its patent absurdity, it was quickly optioned for film rights, and was actually made as a movie in 1980, starring Michael Caine.
Caine has had an amazing career, but it was never more interesting than in the 1980s. Although this decade saw him win his first Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters and also appear in great films like Mona Lisa, Educating Rita and even Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, he didn’t half make some dreadful shite to pay the bills. The Island, which bellyflopped at the box office, qualifies on this front.
Of course, there’s another Benchley link to consider, as Jaws: The Revenge lurks on Caine’s CV. Indeed, he famously couldn’t turn up to receive his Academy Award in 1987 because he was shooting that great white turkey in the Bahamas at the time. There’s an oft-repeated quote attached to Caine, in which the actor reportedly said that he had never seen Jaws: The Revenge, but he had seen the house he built thanks to his salary.
It’s alright for some, me old china.
One thing I will say in its favour: like Jaws and The Deep, The Island has an abrupt, thrilling and unexpected climax as Maynard goes toe-to-stump with Captain Nau. It’s not worth the journey, though, unless you’re the kind of person who enjoys looking at photos of crime scenes.
Maybe as a result of the brain-quaking stupidity of The Island, Peter Benchley didn’t return to oceanic thrillers for another 12 years. He put out The Girl of the Sea of Cortez (more on that later), a watery modern-day fable, and then went on dry land for Rummies, aka Lush (although there’s a lot of wet stuff in that book), as well as the political novel Q Clearance. Although it appears that these books get closer to the heart of Peter Benchley as the writer he wanted to be, they didn’t sell very well.
I guess he’d been badgered… wrong animal; let’s say piranhaed… for years to write “something like Jaws”. He duly delivered in 1991 with the story of another sea monster, the giant squid, in Beast.
Beast (later renamed The Beast, for whatever reason), takes place in Bermuda, and sees a monster filling its suckers with hapless Scuba divers and pleasure boaters. Benchley, who often seemed afflicted by guilt or regret over the effect Jaws supposedly had on demonising sharks, was careful to lay the blame for his latest monster mash on environmental concerns. The harmony of the sea has been unbalanced by over-fishing, which leads creatures like Architeuthis Dux - usually found loitering in the deep sea to give sperm whales nookie badges - into changing its habits. The monster creeps ever closer to the surface, and finally butts mantles with humanity.
There’s even a little meta-commentary, as the characters discuss Jaws as the fiction it is, and debate its effect on how sharks are viewed. If Benchley was trying to distance himself from Jaws – in a book about a man-eating sea beast, no less - then he might at least have tried to do the same with his plot, which is in some cases near-identical to its piscine predecessor.
The marauding cephalopod won’t go away, and thusly needs to be hunted and killed. Whip Darling (Benchley had a way with names) is our hero, a grizzled fishing boat captain with money worries who is paid, and then blackmailed, to take part in the search for the monster after it eats a millionaire’s children. Darling is grumpy like Quint, but less psychotic. Also on hand is a shifty marine biologist who sees a chance to make a name for himself in the scientific journals, as well as Darling’s military mate, and the Ahab-esque millionaire, hell-bent on killing the monster. Wonder how that’s going to pan out?
Things lead, rather predictably, to a hunter-becomes-the-hunted scenario at sea, with yet another unexpected, sudden, memorable climax.
It isn’t Jaws, but it’s very like Jaws, with easily recognisable beats and well-written scenes of seagoing peril. Also, Benchley had finally learned his lesson, and there’s no bad sex waiting to pounce on unwary doggie-paddlers. You know exactly what to expect with Beast, but I liked it for that, and fans of Jaws should check it out.
White Shark/Creature (1994)
Benchley had the very devil of a time with titles. Rummies, a strange blend of alcoholism memoir and murder mystery, is also known as Lush; even Beast got a “The” added to it in later editions.
Famously, Jaws was almost never Jaws at all - Benchley came up with a load of titles which didn't quite cut it, such as Leviathan Rising, The Stillness In The Water, and Aaargh Big Fishie Stop Biting Me! One of these may be a lie.
Creature, as I know it, was originally entitled White Shark. This book does not primarily concern a white shark (although one appears, called, er, Jaws). The title was changed to tie in with the TV movie adaptation of 1997, but it also helped gentle down some people who may have bought the book when it came out and complained, expecting it to be about, you know, the thing in the title.
It's a B-movie homage, featuring a genetically-spliced human/shark hybrid monster, created by those pesky Nazis. The Third Reich is a good stand-by if you need a villain everyone can get their teeth into without any political awkwardness. Hell, we were even friends with the Russians in 1994, so they were out - though around about this time Michael Crichton decided to take a pop at the Japanese for their business practises (?!!?).
The creature is a secret underwater weapon put together during some Josef Mengele-style experiments, with steel claws for hands and the jaws of a great white shark. This Nazi science uber-carnage programme was called “Der Weisse Hai”, which is why Benchley, or more likely his publishers, went for the original title. Obviously.
How about The Bullshi*t In The Water, or Jobbies Rising?
It's a fun beach read. Research scientists; Long Island setting; bit of ecology focusing on cute seals, a pregnant shark, a bit of romance... Curiously, the father-son bonding dynamic of The Island is explored again, though thankfully we dispense with pirate craziness and rape this time out. People do die but it's a decent family drama, with added monster - a nice sea change from Benchley's earlier dark, adult storylines.
The book keeps its monster well hidden, with the author perhaps taking his cue from Spielberg, only revealing it to us at the end. I must confess I had to be reminded of how the story concludes. It’s confectionery, but I recall it was a serviceable enough thriller that merrily swims in the same pool as its better-known peers.
This was Benchley's last piece of fiction. He spent the rest of his life pursuing his conservation interests, and although he did turn out a few more books on sharks, they're true-life pieces, mostly focusing on how to keep the critters alive in a world which seems intent on finning the lot of them. He died in 2006, aged 65.
Just the other day I read a piece on how Benchley supposedly helped make the world unnecessarily frightened of sharks. That article got on my wick, and prompted this one.
This isn't said enough about Peter Benchley: he was neither responsible for the demonisation of sharks, nor is he the reason why many species are endangered. We've been frightened of sharks forever, so it's disingenuous to suggest this was something that began in 1975. They were not regarded as cute and cuddly prior to Jaws. They were also well-known symbols of menace and fear throughout mainstream fictions, long before Our Bruce ever thrashed popular culture into bloody foam. Just read Jules Verne, or Herman Melville, if you don’t believe me.
The reason is simple: sharks are dangerous animals. We know that attacks are very rare and that they don't really want to eat humans - but sometimes, they do. That’s the juice.
We are fascinated by our great predators. Like the eagle or the tiger, a shark is an instantly recognisable creature, a thing of fearful symmetry. We love it for that. Jaws has a very rare, inter-generational cultural cache, tapping into our very psyche. The idea of being eaten alive by a fish is something out of our nightmares. But I'd argue the story’s influence on sharks has been, ultimately, positive.
The environmental obscenity of finning and over-fishing has nothing to do with Jaws. The white shark may well have been more prized by sports anglers in the immediate aftermath of Jaws, and certainly its gnashers would have been seen by some dullards as a trophy worth putting on the mantelpiece. But these folk are in a small minority compared to people like me, who grew up in the teeth of Jaws, and were awestruck by the creature portrayed.
I became more interested in sharks not as dumb brutes to be slaughtered, but as things worthy of respect, even affection. I grew up obsessed by sharks, and I’ll still clear my schedule for a spot of shark porn any time nature documentaries are screened. Jaws is the reason for this.
As Jaws continues to enjoy what Benchley described as “a strange cultural resonance”, so its positive influence grows. People young and old love sharks, and we don't want to see them wiped out. After fascination, came education; we know so much more about these creatures now than we did in 1975.
Benchley's big fish story should start to take some credit for all of this. Certainly he was a tireless advocate of marine conservation for much of his life, and he deserves recognition for that, too.
There’s one more sea-themed book which Benchley released, but it was a bit of a departure: The Girl Of The Sea of Cortez. It’s a gentle love letter to the ocean, and many people have told me it’s his best book. I’ll have to investigate.