NICHOLAS MONSARRAT – The Nylon Pirates. Cassell, UK, hardcover, 1960. William Sloane Associates, US, hardcover, 1960. Cardinal GC-131, US, paperback, 1962.

   When she was sixteen, his ruthless good looks had totally overwhelmed her…six years later, the ruthlessness still softened only for her. She was the sole taming agent of a man who for some reason — for many reasons — regarded the world simply as a target.

   The girl in question is Kathy, twenty eight years younger than Carl Wenstrom, her lover, and mastermind of a group of modern day pirates, con-men, crooked gamblers, gigolos, and beautiful women who prey on the rich, the weak, and the foolish.

   They are five: the Professor working on his magnum opus on piracy (Unless one kept him under close-range scrutiny for quite a long time, the Professor was a figure of undoubted dignity.), Diane Loring the sensuous slut (…she did not look like a lady, but she did not miss it by too wide a margin…), Louis Scapelli the lover who despises women (…a homosexual, a gambler, a pickpocket, a dancing instructor…), Kathy the innocent under Carl’s spell, and Wenstrom himself, 54, and desperate for one last big game, a man walking on a razor’s edge between his nature and his mask of civility.

   …this fantastic man was for her like an outlawed god. For him, robbery was an intellectual exercise; but it was still robbery, often dangerous, brutal, and without pity, and it was with this consistent wickedness in his head that he lived, made love, was kind to children and old people, paid his taxes, gave improvidently to beggars.

   And now there is the opportunity of a lifetime, a millionaires cruise to the Caribbean, down the coast of South America, and back up the coast of Africa, eighty days as the wolves among the sheep, tired businessmen, jaded aristocrats, women hungry to be desired, greedy fools at cards and other games, lonely desperate people grasping at youth or happiness or escape, a feast for Wenstrom and his wolves and worth the $26,000 he has sunk into cabins aboard the S.S. Alcestis, a floating luxury hotel.

   On board the ship are Captain Harmer an old hand at sea (Men liked him because they felt safe in his hands; women, because they did not.) who has gone from a DSO in the war to babysitting spoiled soft people, his too good looking first Officer Tiptree-Jones, and his favorite young Tim Mansell boyish and attractive but with a strength that didn’t show beneath the surface.

   And of course three hundred and eight passengers all with weaknesses, flaws, personal agendas, personality clashes, and of course five wolves to feed on them.

   The Nylon Pirates is a mainstream novel by the author best known for the classic of war at sea The Cruel Sea, but whose best sellers included The Tribe That Lost Its Head, The Kapillian of Malta, The Ship That Died of Shame, and at least one spy novel, Smith and Jones.

   When Diana Loring gets an STD and goes to the ship’s doctor the whole thing starts to fall apart, as Purser Foxy Cutler puts it all together for the Captain,

   “I’m just thinking as I go along. The Loring girl is sleeping around with a lot of older men — maybe for money. Scapelli is doing the same sort of thing, almost certainly for money; it could hardly be anything else. It begins to add up to a funny sort of family. And that’s not all.” He paused.

   “What else?”

   “The father, or uncle, or whatever he is. Wenstrom. He’s been cleaning up, too, at poker. And I understand their stewardess is very hot on the idea that he and the other girl—our little Kathy— aren’t father and stepdaughter at all, but something much cosier.”

   Carl Wenstrom gradually comes unstrung by his ambitious game and the all too human pawns including Kathy whose worship turn sour as she finds herself falling in love with decent Tim Mansell, the man Carl can never be, the man Carl is not as his games begin to unravel, leading to murder (“Good God, do you think all this happened by accident? I like being a crook! It’s the only thing to be!”).

…he smelt danger. A lot of people—their victims —knew about their operations already; for various reasons, they would not talk, but if anyone else grew suspicious, if gossip started, the entire thing might collapse.

   Now, at the break-even point, they could not afford that; the whole purpose of the trip was just coming over the horizon.

   The book was racy for its day though it is more open about sex than pornographic, more adult in theme and concept than action. As always with Monsarrat it is a compelling read, literate, page turning, and painfully acute in its observation of people, both the victims pitiable and disgusting and those preying on them.

   The Nylon Pirates is a mainstream novel, a bestseller, and not a genre novel, but it is well in John D. MacDonald territory, and a damn good read. It’s a grownup book written by and for grownups, a fascinating look at a very real world which we usually see in much more glamorous terms in movies full of charming con-men and women. Here the knife beneath the charm is visible.