The North Atlantic, 1940. A British destroyer pounces on a seemingly abandoned U-boat, leading to a spine-chilling encounter.
Five years later, the US Navy destroyer Brownlee grimly prepares to battle a swarm of Japanese kamikazes at Okinawa.
Mitch “Lucky” Kirkham, a young gunner on the Brownlee, wakes up miraculously unscathed after his crewmates are killed in a fearsome kamikaze strike.
Bullied and resented amid accusations of cowardice and worse, Mitch re-boards his patched-up ship for the long voyage back to San Francisco. All he wants is to go home.
But far out in the boundless emptiness of the Pacific, a strange madness begins to seize the sailors on the Brownlee. Terror, hysteria and suicide torment the men amid sightings of ghosts and a terrifying monster that stalks the ship by night.
Mitch stumbles upon a possible explanation for the madness. But as the ship presses on alone, deeper into the vast Pacific Ocean and the grip of insanity, will anyone listen to him before his famous luck runs out for good?
Jonah is a searing, psychological suspense thriller, the latest from Carl Rackman, author of Irex and Voyager.
I read a Kindle version
Coming after a couple of sugary Christmas stories, Jonah was a refreshing breath of fresh air. I like a good thriller and Jonah did not disappoint.
Firstly I just want to draw attention to how atmospheric and spooky the cover of the book is. The fractured font used for the title Jonah foreshadows the state of mind experienced by many of the sailors on board the US Navy Destroyer Brownlee on which this novel is set. There is a feeling of isolation and loneliness conveyed by the image of the Destroyer alone on a vast sea under an enormous moon. There is also a hint of a sea monster in the water. The cover definitely draws in any potential readers.
The story is set on board the Brownlee in the Pacific Ocean towards the end of the Second World War. Mitch ‘Lucky’ Kirkham miraculously survives a Kamikaze attack to the gun turret to which he was assigned. He was already known as ‘Lucky’ following another amazing wartime escape two years prior to this attack. He is accused of cowardice and desertion, and bullied by his fellow sailors. His tormentors are unwilling to believe his defense that he did not run away at the sight of the Japanese aircraft bearing down on him, but was just lucky.
Unfortunately instances of bullying, hazing and sexual harassment in the US Navy are still rife today and were so during the time period of this novel. The culture of not ratting out your fellow seamen allows for many more instances to go unreported than the military service would be keen to admit. As the victim of such violent bullies, who are set on ending his life on more than one occasion, Mitch Kirkham can hardly be considered lucky in his daily life, but nicknames have a tendency to stick.
Brownlee had been his home for two years, a community filled with friends and characters. Now it was a wall of hostility, cold and unfriendly. So much had changed in such a short time.Carl Rackman
Following the Kamikaze attack, the survivors traveling back to Pearl Harbor on the Brownlee begin to be haunted by terrifying visions from their respective pasts and even a sea monster. Are their fragile mental states suffering from survivors’ guilt or combat stress and causing these visions, or is there something more sinister at play in the middle of the Pacific Ocean?
The use of flashbacks to explain the visions experienced by each of the haunted men works well as an explanatory device and gives the reader an occasional escape from the setting on board the Brownlee. Could these visions possibly be related to the “zippers”, the performance enhancing amphetamines the seamen take in order to keep themselves awake during their long watches, now that the crew is short-handed? As the daughter of a narcoleptic who took prescription amphetamines every day from his mid twenties (following WW2) to retirement in his late fifties, I can confirm that these types of hallucination are realistic under the influence of such drugs. My Dad would see snakes coming out of the wall at him on a regular basis – so seeing a sea monster coming out of the sea at you as a side effect of amphetamines is entirely possible and no doubt terrifying.
…yet another seaman sat quivering on the floor with his head in his hands. Others recounted their fantastic stories of how the monster had snatched away one of their crew mates.Carl Rackman
The chaplain McGready appears to be Mitch Kirkham’s only friend/confidant now that his friends have perished in the Kamikaze attack. Mitch soon realizes he cannot trust McGready’s confidentiality either, as it becomes clear that what he told the chaplain in confidence has somehow got back to his tormentors.
From being “Lucky” Kirkham, Mitch eventually earns the titular nickname of “Jonah”, being accused of bringing bad luck to the rest of the crew while he himself remains blessed with good fortune in their eyes. According to Wikipedia “a Jonah is a long-established expression among sailors, meaning a person (either a sailor or a passenger) who is bad luck, which is based on the Biblical prophet Jonah”.
They think I’m some kind of Jonah. I heard somebody use the word this morning. It’s very unlucky to use that name on a ship, Father.Carl Rackman
The characterisation in Jonah is excellent and you very quickly realise what type of person both Mitch and his nemesis, BM2 Halloran are going to be. The ego of the ship’s Captain, Lt. Commander Marcinko and his “follow orders at all costs” mentality comes into play later in the story, as does the fairness and integrity of the ship’s medic, “Doc” Coolidge. He and the Executive Officer, Lt. Commander Lee, were unclear whether they could believe the outlandish theories they were being told by Mitch Kirkham, until they were won over by his agreement to take part in a makeshift drug trial for them, and they began to trust and listen to him thereafter. The character of the chaplain, McGready was possibly one of the most interesting and surprising, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers here.
Despite my lack of naval knowledge I did not find it necessary to consult the included glossary of terminology, since Rackman is very good at giving just enough context that you can figure out what is being described without needing a definition. There are also plans of the Brownlee included at the beginning of the book, but on my Kindle the accompanying text was almost impossible to make out.
With themes including the use of performance enhancing drugs, wartime PTSD, combat fatigue, bullying within the Navy, the inability to escape unfairness due to the chain of command, isolation at sea and survivors’ guilt, Jonah is an intriguing psychological thriller with spooky moments, horror elements and even a few expertly delivered, unexpected twists in the tale. The tension is built expertly as those sailors not under the influence of the madness try to wrest the control of the ship from the increasing number of those affected, many of whom are fighting a sea monster using every gun and torpedo available to them. Keeping out of the way of the marauding ‘zombie sailors’ on a boat filled with weaponry, narrow walkways and not many available hiding places is no easy feat.
I would recommend Jonah to fans of tense psychological thrillers, wartime scenarios or fans of naval military intrigue. It is suitable for all ages from teenagers through to centenarians and beyond.
About the Author
Hi! I’m Carl Rackman, a British former airline pilot turned author. I spent my working life travelling the world and this has given me a keen interest in other people and cultures. I’ve drawn on my many experiences for my writing. I write suspense thrillers with a grounded science-fiction theme. I like reading novels that feature atmospheric locales and I enjoy complex, absorbing storylines combined with rich, believable characters, so that’s the sort of fiction I write. I try to create immersive worlds for the reader to explore, and characters who are more than just vehicles for the story. I come from a naval military background and have held a lifelong interest in military history and seafaring – all my books usually contain some of these elements! I hope you’ll enjoy my books and leave reviews. I try to personally thank reviewers if they’ve particularly enjoyed my books. Find out more about me, my writing and my upcoming books at www.carlrackman.com. You can usually find me on Twitter – @CarlRackman – I’d love to link up with you as followers.
As I read this book I was reminded of a couple of trips we have made to Battleship Cove in Fall River, MA. My husband and son stayed overnight on a battleship with the cub scouts on one occasion, and were amazed by how uncomfortable and cramped the beds and quarters were. It is easy to imagine sailors losing their minds when kept in such close-confined, claustrophobic conditions with each other for large stretches of time. Here are some of our photos from Battleship Cove, mostly featuring the USS Massachusetts (BB59). This is not a Destroyer like the Brownlee, but still gives a feel for how tight the doorways and sleeping areas were.