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Review: A kickass heroine who’s taken some kicks of her own

Daniel Pyne is the author of "Water Memory."
(Katie Pyne / Thomas & Mercer)

On the Shelf

Water Memory

By Daniel Pyne
Thomas & Mercer: 356 pages, $25

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When “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was published some 15 years ago, it accelerated an unofficial crime subgenre with a rebooted style of heroine — the kick-ass female. Of course this wasn’t exactly new: Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller and other writers of previous generations wrote female protagonists who take no tea for the fever. But Stieg Larsson and the myriad 21st century writers who stand on their shoulders have taken those characters to new heights of physical prowess — even as they sometimes sucked plot, character development and even logic into their thrillers’ action-packed vortex.

Into this maelstrom comes Aubrey Sentro, the heroine of Daniel Pyne’s “Water Memory” — a former government agent who now works black ops missions for a private security firm called Solomon Systems. The blistering prologue establishes that Sentro knows her way around an exfiltration, despite a mix-up about the hotel room where the victim is being held. This time it’s a middle-aged Chinese American corporate type who’s been kidnapped at a conference in Cyprus but naively thinks he’s having a marathon lovemaking session with a beautiful woman. Sentro’s momentary hesitation about the room contributed to the mission going sideways, resulting in unintended bloodshed and something more in the aftermath: “She heard but couldn’t understand the voices, as if she were underwater.”

An off-the-books medical exam confirms Sentro’s worst suspicions: Multiple concussions have brought on serial TBI, traumatic brain injury. The degenerative condition is the source of her headaches, aural distortions and memory loss. With no cure, her diagnosis makes her a risk in the field and signals the end of her career.

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It is refreshing to see, in a genre prone to impossible super-heroic feats (“Mission: Impossible’s” un-scratchable Tom Cruise comes to mind), a protagonist whose injuries leave real scars. In Sentro’s case, the physical damage is compounded by emotional pain. Her husband, staunch supporter of her clandestine career and stay-at-home anchor for the couple’s two children, died some years before. Without him, she’s been drifting emotionally, unable to deal with now-adult daughter Jenny and especially her son, Jeremy, who believes his mother “lacked the basic tools to truly connect and console.” How can she reveal to them the real cause of her condition without owning up that her job at Solomon comprises more than “international risk mitigation”?

Before attending to that, there is the review of the disastrous exfiltration, which results in Sentro being ordered to take some time off. But rather than face the music at home, she takes up a girlfriend’s suggestion and books a single passage on the Jeddah, a cargo ship bound for South America with an assortment of other budget-conscious passengers. These include a woman named Fontaine Fox, who casts a lascivious eye toward Sentro from the moment they meet.

As Sentro beds down on the slow boat to nowhere, a copy of “Lord Jim,” Joseph Conrad’s classic seafaring tale, on her nightstand, one might assume “Water Memory” and its aged, impaired protagonist have taken a sharp detour into geezer noir. But Pyne knows exactly what he’s doing. (Among his screen credits are “The Sum of All Fears,” a remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” and the “Bosch” TV series.) When the action shifts to a group of pirates led by psychotic twins Castor and Pauly — who in short order brutally murder a pleasure boat’s occupants and then burn a thieving 10-year-old mate alive — one knows it’s not going to end well for the Jeddah.

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As the pirates storm the ship, most of the passengers and crew head for a safe room below deck. But one guest is killed and Sentro forced to escape to the maze of cargo containers above deck, where she plays a deadly hide-and-seek game with the pirates while trying to figure out a way to save everyone on board.

Even on a bad, brain-foggy day, Sentro proves herself a worthy adversary for Castor, Pauly and their mates. Her highly improvised plans, aided by muscle memory and black ops smarts, are a joy to watch unspooling. After the Jeddah docks on a remote island off the Venezuelan coast, it’s revealed that the pirates are part of a larger conspiracy. Sentro takes on the whole twisted plot with unexpected help from the burned, thieving boy, his pregnant teenage sister and her boyfriend, a drug-addicted American doctor.

“Water Memory” is elevated from its genre moorings by the parallels it draws to classic seafaring literature, including “Lord Jim” (whose title character’s journey is echoed here) and even Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” excerpted for the novel’s epigraph. But neither that nor the well-placed and succinct flashbacks, illuminating the flash points in Sentro’s past that led her to this fateful moment, can distract a reader from the ripping good yarn Pyne has spun — or the prickly, endearing Aubrey Sentro, ugly scars and all.

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In ‘Scandinavian Noir: In Pursuit of a Mystery,’ the critic travels to Nordic cities to investigate the society that shaped a global phenomenon.

Woods is a book critic, editor and author of several anthologies and crime novels.


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