Walter Jon Williams recommended this non-fiction account of deep sea wreck divers exploring a German U-boat as being far more terrifying than any horror movie, and cited the scene in which a diver reaches for his knife with his left hand instead of his right, and so sets in motion a chain of events which ends in his death.

Walter was absolutely right: this book is scarier than most horror, and more suspenseful than most thrillers. There was one moment, toward the end, when I actually exclaimed aloud, "Noooo!" Though there's some melodramatic phrasing at the beginning, the writing style soon settles down into smooth, unobtrusive clarity. It's one of those stranger than fiction tales, and an extremely satisfying read.

Deep sea wreck divers explore wrecked ships for kicks and souvenirs. It's extremely dangerous hobby, particularly in the early nineties, when they used compressed air instead the now-standard helium-nitrogen-oxygen "trimix." The latter allows you to function normally at great depths; the former means that once you get to the incredibly dangerous wreck, where every move stirs up blinding silt and perhaps knocks down rotted timbers to pin you in place as your air runs out, you are so oxygen-deprived that you are essentially dead drunk and prone to irrational fits of panic or fury. Plus, if you ascend too fast, you will get decompression sickness, or "the bends": the pressure that causes nitrogen to dissolve in your blood in the depth, releases it in large bubbles if you shoot to the surface instead of ascending in slow stages. In minor cases this can still cause excruciating pain; in severe ones, your blood basically turns into soda pop and you die in agony.

As portrayed in the book, deep sea wreck divers are adrenaline junkies, mostly men with something to prove. (To my annoyance, though a couple female divers are mentioned, none are described. I'd have liked to hear more about being a woman in what is clearly a highly male-dominated field.) The various iterations of wreck-diving culture and characters, from the careful technicians to the rowdy frat boys, are vividly depicted.

The story begins in 1991, when some divers find a sunken U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. There is no record of any U-boat ever having been sunk there, so they begin exploring it to find out which one it is. This proves to be way, way, way more of a challenge than any of them ever expected: all identifying marks have worn away, and the submarine is a death-trap which, over the course of several years, claims the lives of several divers. Two of the divers become obsessed with figuring out its identity, and alternate increasingly dangerous dives with historical research that takes them digging through US Naval records and interviewing German U-boat commanders. The historical mystery ends up being just as fascinating and suspenseful as the diving itself, and has more surprising twists than an Agatha Christie. From the simple story of a dangerous exploration, the book evolves into a look at the uncertainty of the historical record, the limits of obsession, and the commonalities between men at war and men at play. An excellent, gripping book.


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