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February 2006 Vol. 32, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Swimming With the Dead

from the February, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

It’s late in the season to be recommending a “beach read,” so how about a new fiction genre: a “surface interval read”? That’s what Kathy Brandt has created in her mystery series featuring underwater investigator Hannah Sampson. Brandt is a journalist and ex-writing professor who’s been diving for 20 years. Swimming With the DeadHer heroine is a veteran of the Denver Police Department’s dive and recovery team who moves to the British Virgin Islands. More than just a fictional character, Sampson is Brandt’s alter ego. “I’ve dived the sites that my heroine dives when she sets out to solve heinous crimes,” says Brandt. “She experiences the same fear that I do at depth, when nitrogen narcosis sends her to the edge of panic.”

So far, Brandt has turned out three underwater potboilers. In the first installment, Swimming With the Dead, Sampson is sent to the BVI to investigate the death of a Denver police commissioner’s son, an environmental researcher, allowing Brandt to use the degradation of coral reefs as a backdrop. By the end of the book, Sampson has decided she’s burned out on big city police work and accepts a job with the Tortola Police Department.

The second book, Dark Water Dive, begins with Sampson recovering a dead body from a Denver reservoir. She’s already packed her bags for the Virgin Islands, but for one last time she agrees to pull on her dry suit and muck about in cold, murky water. Researching this book, author Brandt got dry suit certified and took a dive rescue class with fire department scuba divers, and her descriptions of underwater recovery and other police procedures have the ring of authenticity.

By the second chapter, Sampson has relocated to Tortola, where she’s rented a sailboat to call home. One of her neighbors at her friendly marina is an activist named Elyse Henry, who’s fighting the harvesting of shark fins, giving Brandt an opportunity to weigh in on this disastrous practice. Within days of reporting to work at the police department, Sampson gets her first case: a missing yachtsman turns up snagged on a coral reef with a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. As she conducts her investigation, Sampson encounters unique characters and enough red herrings to fill a fish ID book. When her boss decides the case is solved, Sampson doesn’t buy it and continues to snoop around on her own, putting herself in imminent danger. There are plenty of plot twists and turns, leading to a dramatic shoot-out at sea. Along the way, Sampson takes time for a romantic interlude with the handsome owner of a local yacht chartering company, who she calls by his last name, O’Brien, in true hardboiled detective style.

Written in almost serial fashion, each book features short chapters, usually with cliff hanger endings. Characters carry over from book to book. Dangerous Depths opens with an explosion that wrecks Henry’s boat adjacent to Sampson’s, sending the activist to the hospital in critical condition. This time Henry is campaigning on behalf of endangered marine turtles, and Sampson has to figure out why that preoccupation would lead someone to try to kill her. The studly O’Brien reappears as Sampson’s part-time lover and protector. Each ongoing character is reintroduced in each book, so you don’t have to start at the beginning of the series to pick up on their relationship to Sampson.

Brandt’s thrillers are well-plotted and her characters are distinctive and well-formed. Brandt’s writing style is lucid if uninspired, like a good romance novel. Her dialog is on the level of a TV drama (think “CSI: Tortola”), and she occasionally slips into clichés (“it was quiet, almost too quiet”). She’s spot on when depicting underwater scenery and diving techniques, although because she writes for landlubbers as well as divers, she laboriously defines scuba terminology (how a BCD works for instance), which I glazed over.

Minor quibbles aside, the Brandt series offers fastpaced, page-turning action in an inviting tropical setting. Just right to take along on a live-aboard, or to whet your appetite between dive trips. Published by New American Library, the paperbacks retail for less than $7. If you go to Undercurrent and click on Amazon, all our profit will go to the protection of coral reefs. Or visit Brandt’s Website,

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