Hell Ship to Kuma / Barge Girl

Calvin Clements is best known to the world as a screenwriter of Westerns both for television and the movies. His working life actually started with manning a fireboat in New York harbor after several years in the Navy. After that, he wrote four paperbacks, several of which were nautical themed. Half of all his novels are found in this two-book volume.

Hell Ship to Kuma is the gem of the pair. Set in the post-war Far East, it’s the story of a man, once a proud captain of a merchant marine, reduced by a scandal, to begging for crumbs. Captain John Roper can’t get a job with any real shipping company and is reduced to living off what his girlfriend brings in as he waits for someone to take a chance on him. It’s a story of dreams dashed against the rocks and desperation and it’s about what lengths desperate people will go to to survive.

Penniless as he is, Roper never imagined he’d sign on to Murdoch’s he’ll ship, a rusty old freighter run by a man who is out to prove that at sea he is God and the ship his domain.

Nothing could have prepared Roper for the scared helpless crew aboard the freighter who shivered at the sight of the tyrant running it. Murdoch is a character like no other, half-mad, hell-bent, and crooked.

Falling for the one passenger locked in her cabin, a dancer who has no understanding that she’s being sold into virtual slavery in Kuma, a fiefdom Run by another madman and would be king out to humiliate anyone who would stand up to him.

Hell is a ship and an island from which there’s no escape, not when no one has your back and no one will stand up to the twin tyrants. Indeed, the freighter is also an old Chinese slave ship with holds for chaining slaves out of sight of inspections, holds that Murdoch threatens to fill with anyone who stands up to him, including his duplicitous wife and her young lover.

There is also a fortune in heisted metal to be pirated to Red China, but that fortune is almost an afterthought compared to the desperation felt by Roper and Karen, the dancer.

Barge Girl is the second novel and it seems rather pedestrian in comparison. It is set on the tugboats and barges plying the Hudson River. It involves a passionate love affair with a married woman and a love triangle out of Postman Always Rings Twice.

This novel has all the right elements, including a yacht built by hand over five years. But, Clements never seems to quite wind up the tension enough except for a few points towards the end of the story.

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