Monday, May 19, 2014

Ghost Ship of the Desert

by Michael Cole
(Foremost Press / 1-939-87011-9 / 978-1-939-87011-7 / April 2014 / 200 pages / $13.97 Amazon / $4.99 Kindle)

Reviewed by Dr. Al Past for PODBRAM

There are two reasons I looked forward to Michael Cole’s Ghost Ship of the Desert:  (1) I love sea stories set in the time wooden ships, and (2), I was raised in El Paso, in the great Chihuahan Desert. To combine both concepts in one story was an intriguing idea. My initial enthusiasm was dimmed somewhat, however, by the cover, which shows an improbable fully rigged ship (though without sails on the yards, true) lying half buried in sand. Its rigging is completely intact, with all lines and ropes tight—even the ratlines! These lines would need daily attention, even hourly attention, to maintain their tautness on a modern vessel, but on a ghost ship in the desert? That’s not going to be the case.
Still, I should know better than anyone that a book should not be judged by its cover, since I have penned a number of novels with astronomical photos on the covers though the stories are actually only about ten per cent science fiction, being set solidly on our good Earth. Several hard core sci-fi fans have objected in strong terms. They have a point, even if the stories are good ones.

Fortunately, Ghost Ship of the Desert turned out to be a decent story too, despite the further contradiction that the ship of the title turned out, on page three, to be a Spanish galleon. The ship on the cover is a vessel several centuries newer than the tubby, hardy vessels of the days of the Spanish Empire.

In the story, we find an investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times is sent to report on a political squabble over the fate of the Salton Sea, a highly saline, highly toxic dumping ground for various California entities. In so doing, he stumbles into a murder mystery involving, among other things, the ghost ship of the title, a semi-deranged ex-SEAL Native American, rare and valuable black pearls, a gorgeous red-headed scientist with a violent boyfriend, and murder. The result is a mystery that fits squarely in its niche: a detective story replete with danger, romance, and a shadowy perpetrator or perpetrators. (As a bonus, we learn that back in sixteenth century and even later, the Salton Sea, now landlocked, was occasionally open to the sea, so that the occasional ship might indeed have sailed upon it. It’s not difficult to find lost ships and possible lost treasure mentioned online.)

All in the story is not smooth sailing, however. The text reads well enough provided you are not the sort who trips up at comma splices and similar copy editing oversights (as I am). There are some plot holes, not unknown in complex mystery stories. Most are minor, but I have to mention one which this former desert rat had to shake his head at: the notion that a three or four hour sandstorm could completely cover a Spanish galleon (or completely uncover it), and that after centuries under the sand and with some missing planks in the deck, the area below decks will remain open enough for a person to walk around and hunt for treasure chests. My family found the spring sandstorms sent drifts of sand into even a tightly sealed-up house. Left to accumulate for 400 years, I’m certain all our furniture would have been buried. And probably the refrigerator too.

Finally, I found the characters rather flat. The relentless investigative reporter and the traffic-stopping red haired scientist who inevitably falls for him fulfilled their functions in the story but were not quite unique enough to lodge in my long-term memory.

The bottom line is that Ghost Ship of the Desert is a worthwhile read but also a good example of the difficulty of putting out a polished, professional product independently or with a small staff. That requires meticulous attention to detail—to hundreds of details—a daunting task indeed, and that’s the good news. The rest of the story involves marketing, and we won’t even go into that here, except to mention that this blog offers quality advice and a good selection of the most helpful links in the column to the left.

See Also: Other Books by Michael Cole