Book review: Virgin Cay and A Night Out by Basil Heatter
In two suspenseful novels set in and around the Gulf of Mexico, the late American author Basil Heatter tells the stories of a shipwrecked boatman who is persuaded to commit murder for the price of a new ship, and a shrimp boat captain who unwittingly gets embroiled in a drug smuggling operation.
A blend of crime fiction, nautical fiction and suspense, Virgin Cay and A Night Out are two exceptional novels by sea-loving Heatter, son of renowned newscaster Gabriel Heatter. Before writing about two dozen books during his 40-year literary career, Basil Heatter, who died in 2009, served in the Navy and was a P.T. boat skipper in the south-west Pacific during the Second World War.
Like many of his works, these two are centred on tough, experienced seamen caught up in danger and crime, and battling murderous villains, femmes fatales and stormy seas.
Originally published by Gold Medal Books in 1963, Virgin Cay is a fast-paced adventure yarn with a strong, sympathetic protagonist and some deliciously devious secondary characters.
In its gripping opening, the principal character, Gus Robinson, a hard-boiled sailor, makes a strenuous 10-mile swim to a remote island, Spanish Cay, after abandoning his sinking ship in a storm. He washes ashore, bedraggled and forlorn at losing his boat, and seeks help at the nearest house.
The occupant, Clare Loomis, a fine-looking, shapely woman in her mid to late thirties, tends to his coral-gashed foot, beds him, and then offers him work which will net him a lump sum of twenty thousand dollars. The catch is that he will have to bump somebody off to get the money.
Heatter is very adept at crafting intriguing, flawed characters either seeking redemption or striving to break free from their unhappy, shackled existence. And there are plenty of pitiable, doomed characters to be found in both of these books.
In Virgin Cay, Stanley Walker, a wealthy local resident who puts Robinson up in his home, is especially pathetic. A gloomy but likeable alcoholic and a ‘fearsome bore,’ he is, like Robinson, a ‘runaway from the world,’ craving a different life.
Heatter writes of the two men: ‘Although the sea Walker had elected to sail on was compounded of Scotch instead of salt water the end results were much the same. They were both lost and lonely and turning aimlessly in the same remote eddy.’
Clare Loomis is the most pitiful of all. Cold, calculating, vain, ruthless, and money-hungry, she is accustomed to collecting and trading relationships ‘the way a stamp buff traded stamps.’ Her handsome but sleazy lover, Dino di Buonaventura, an average portrait artist she has supported for years, describes her as ‘a regular man-eater’ who could ‘write the encyclopaedia of the bed.’ It’s the kindest thing he has to say about her.
As for Dino, he is a selfish cad who translates everything he sees in terms of money. He loathes Clare but latches on to her as a means of survival, and now he intends to marry Clare’s beautiful young cousin, Gwen Leacock, who is expected to inherit a large fortune.
Eager to keep Dino for herself, Clare formulates a plan to get Gwen out of the picture and her hands on the inheritance. She believes Robinson will make the perfect accomplice, given that he’s a destitute, down-on-his-luck drifter who is desperate to get off the island and return to the itinerant lifestyle he has enjoyed for the past ten years. As anticipated, he is easily lured into her scheme by the sort of money it would take him a lifetime to earn.
Robinson is tough and ‘unpredictable’ but the reader wonders if he is capable of murder and, if so, is he smart enough to get away with it?
A Night Out, first published in 1956, is a powerful and dramatic tale told in an erratic and meandering manner that reflects its dysfunctional, wayward characters. The volatile protagonist, Johnny Flake, is an aggressive but honest and hard-working shrimp fisherman who is looking to earn enough money to buy a boat and start his own business.
However, the ‘slimy’ boat owner Flake works for, Vincent Mangio, is so dishonest and underhanded that it seems inevitable things will go badly for Flake on his next fishing assignment.
Flake once spent ‘thirty-two days in jail in Campeche for fishing Mexican territorial waters’ but this time, he unwisely allows himself to be persuaded to smuggle liquor out of Cuba, believing it will be his last job for Mangio and the pay-off will allow him to buy his own boat. Alas, when he belatedly discovers that it’s not booze but heroin they are smuggling, the job turns decidedly deadly.
Heatter adds an extra layer of savagery to Flake, a wild and brutal man who communicates best with his fists, lashing out at everyone who crosses him – even loved ones. Guilty of dreadful wrongdoings, he seeks to forget the dark deeds in his past and start afresh.
Those who come into contact with him are just as pitiful and adrift. His engineer is a feeble, washed-up ‘rummy,’ unable to function without alcohol and smelling of death. His deckhand is a hardened criminal who, at sixteen, knifed a man to death and threw the body overboard. And his ex-lover is an unhappy wanderer who keeps resurfacing in his life and reminding him of past mistakes.
Then there is the tormented playboy, Allan Chamber III, ‘a miserable weakling and coward’ who is stricken with grief and anguish over the frequent infidelities of his promiscuous mistress but continues to take her back, forever endeavouring to sail her to a place where she can’t easily find another playmate.
At times grim and brooding, A Night Out is also an exciting, philosophical and character-focused crime noir with neat slices of razor-sharp humour. Like Virgin Cay, it is thrilling, dramatic, and awash with complex characters and unexpected twists.
(Stark House Press, paperback, £15.95)