Author: Martin Roy Hill

ISBN: 978-1480042636

When inspector Schag questions how the burden of command exacts a price in Martin Roy Hills’ crime thriller, The Killing Depths, Schag hears an answer that becomes a key theme of the story. Captain Johnson’s answer, “That’s the price you pay for the honor of command,” strikes the dilemma of how does a military person fulfill responsibility when two or more clashing threats place the protagonist in a no-win scenario.

Schag’s task as a naval crime investigator faces complex barriers on Johnson’s attack sub. A murder has been committed and the killer appears to be a serial one. The sub lacks time to deal fully with the crime since a near war situation throws the command into trying to stop a North Korean sub from joining the Iranian Navy.

But Schag’s path is filled with more than torpedoes. Schag isn’t navy — he’s a naval crime investigator (NCIS). That can alienate many crew members who consider NCIS to be outsiders. To make matters worse, Schag deals with a crew half made up of women, which disturbs the naval social norms. That means potential problems with the officers and crew. He already harbors anger from a former friend, the sub’s executive officer (XO), Paul Culver. A past cover up by Culver cost Schag advancement. Or was Schag partially responsible for the past?

Those forces pull the reader as they struggle with Schag’s decision making. His responsibility centers on the role of an investigator. What of the responsibility of finding whether his past relationship with Culver clouds his thinking? Can he fully interrogate the crew if the crew deals with constant threats of enemy torpedoes?

Hill has placed a mix of minefields in the protagonist’s path. He has dived into the threats of the crime genre while also charted a course through the military lexicon.  

Hill shows the attention to detail of the investigator as he views the crime scene that might cause Sherlock envy. Schag’s interviewing techniques pry into the suspects like a version of Prime Suspect. And the suspects are many. Could even one of the officers of the submarine be the killer?

Hill’s ability of displaying the command structure of the submarine world allows the frantic pace of the investigation to be interrupted by the turmoil of a submarine hunt, laying of mines and avoiding torpedo attacks. The pace brings the reader into the wet soaked, narrow corridors of the ship as the sub uses the depths to defy the enemy. The attack introduces readers to the flow of command from the Captain to the XO in a lineage that shows the naval sense of preserving order.

Yet Hill might have blended those skills even more by linking the dilemma more consistently with the crime. Hill misses some opportunities to explore more deeply into Schag and the Captain’s psyches. Hill showed the driving pulse inside Schag, both loving and hating the naval traditions. Hill revealed Schag’s skills as investigator, which allowed him to steer another path after facing a no-win situation in the past. But Schag could have left the Navy. He stayed only to find the present case involving the sub of his former friend, now the XO. 

Hill wanders through a mental state during the investigation where he sees the images of the past when he looks at the XO, and he tries to repress some of those to function in the case. That terrain is fertile with opportunities to have Schag plagued by a key word from other characters as an interrogation proceeds. Could that word from the character have come from some conversation between the XO and the person Schag was interviewing? That ongoing process of worry then becomes tied to the dual responsibility of crime solver and naval officer. 

While Schag does dispute the Captain on changing the nature of the mission because of the killer, more blending with the dual responsibilities could have added to the conflict. The XO, Hunter, in the classic Crimson Tide, showed a constant barrage of how and when an interpretation of a message could lead to war. The level of concern led to questioning how to avoid war or take actions to preempt an attack.

The questions about honor and cost are numerous. How does the responsibility of maintaining a co-ed ship change the usual naval routine? Does the responsibility mean going against naval social norms? How does that enter Schag’s thinking when the victim is a woman? Hill shows us Schag’s concern as a crime investigator, but Hill doesn’t really enter Schag’s mind about those implications for social change. 

Another question could be, how does a real investigation occur when the ship of war believes sailors are expendable in war. The sailors and evidence are not at Schag’s quick recall. The ship is in fighting mode. 

That dual look at responsibility could have pushed the question of what is war? A killer stalking on board could be defined as being at war against others. But an attempt to stop the Norther Korean sub from joining the Iranian Navy might be considered a crisis before a war. No war was occurring at the time. Does the Navy determine when a state of war exists? 

If the submarine’s DEFCON status is higher than that of the nation as a whole, the idea developed that the status had to be structured that way. The submarine existed as the first line of defense. Then the closer the action, the more likely the definition of a war exists. What about the closeness of the killer on the ship? 

Even though more blending could have heightened the inner anxiety, Hill’s storytelling submerges the reader into the realm of the submarine world and the climate of crime. Hill treats us to a method of analysis that shows powers of observation. And he warns us that no matter what skills we have, we can be sidetracked by our emotions and fears. Those fears can take away our perspective about responsibility or stop us from seeing a higher cause.

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