The Caine Mutiny – 5/5 Stars
A truly wonderful, carefully plotted and thoughtful war and anti-war novel from Herman Wouk, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1952 or so. The novel takes place mainly aboard the “USS Caine,” a minesweeper destroyer that is mostly stationed in Pearl Harbor and other naval bases, and who’s job is to tow artillery targets, clear shipping lanes, and minesweep. In a pinch, it could be used to fight submarines, but that is not the fate here of this ship. It takes us awhile to get into the novel’s action and main plot, and we begin with the introduction of a few of the central characters as they are in school, have adventures ashore, work their way through naval officer’s training, and eventually meet up with the Caine. Except that this is a novel heavily focused on character development, this early, meandering introduction of the characters doesn’t quite make sense until much later. As we meet the Caine initially, it’s a slipshod ship, with a kind of lackadaisical captain who believes that so long as the jobs get done, there’s flexibility in how they happen. That means that regs are out the window, but also it means that the crew is more or less happy. But it also makes things quite sloppy. When the ship receives a new captain, Captain Queeg, he initially seems like a reasonable, but more by the books commander. It’s only after a few tense moments where his command, or masculinity, is threatened by sloppiness, his own mistakes, and other little moments, does the crew realize their new captain is deeply incompetent and deeply defensive. And so the path of the novel leads to a moment of crisis where the executive officer relieves the captain of his command, leading to the “mutiny” in the title, and the subsequent court-martial trial.
The novel is much more surprising than I realized going in, as the trial and the next 50 or pages bear out. It takes a complicated issue, pretends to look at it in relatively simple terms of right and wrong, and the muddies it up for us to consider in more complex ways.
The King of Torts – 3/5 Stars
This is a strange John Grisham book, from 2003, that is not exactly a thriller in the way of say The Firm, but still has a narrative drive and momentum, as well as a sense of impending fall that does add a thrilling feel to it. We meet a young public defender in Washington DC as he’s picking up yet another murder case. His client is guilty and admits guilt, but can’t explain to Clay or himself why he killed the man he did. As Clay looks to dump the case as soon as possible, he’s approached by a kind of shadowy figure who tells him that he can explain the murder, and several others, as the side-effect of an experimental anti-addiction medication that was given to hundreds of people in DC. About 8% or so of the medicated end up murdering, without sense, randomly. This figure is acting as a kind of cleaner, and wants to use Clay to approach the family members of the murdered people and get them to settle quickly with the drug company to avoid later suits. Clay takes the case and makes a bundle. This puts him squarely in the business of huge class action suits against corporations and makes him “The King of Torts” for a limited time. And it goes from there.
Like I said, it’s not entirely a thriller, but is more of a Faust story, so the thriller/suspense part is more about when external factors will finally close in on our character.