Dead Water, By Simon Ings

Turbulent tides and hidden undercurrents

Eric Moyse, a fishing fleet entrepreneur in the far northern Lofoten Islands, is involved in rescuing survivors of an Italian airship that foundered over the Arctic in 1928.

A Scandinavian hydrographer whom Moyse finds half eaten by polar bears yields a notebook crammed with formulae describing dead water: a phenomenon of complex boundary layer interaction that could redefine physics. Or, as one character simplifies it: "You know, the way a propeller churns up waters of different densities so it can't go anywhere."

Moyse does know. Established as a container shipping magnate after the war, he applies the same principle to certain discreet cargoes. Biological weapons that governments need to lose but not destroy are locked into containers which, through those complex dead water algorithms, are made to churn endlessly around the globe, lost in manifests and traceable only through Moyse's secret codes.

While this opening strand is the thematic anchor for Simon Ings's superbly busy second novel of discovery and betrayal, piracy and espionage, it's only one of many narrative threads that circle the world and weave through time.

One of Moyse's containers turns up on India's Great Trunk Road in 1996, where Roopa Vish is investigating a forgery and smuggling empire. Roopa's dogged sleuthing adds plenty of colour and a moral intensity to Ings's pacy narrative. Glimpses of workers' slave-like conditions amplify Roopa's sense of injustice, and from her deskwork as a capable and idealistic anti-corruption detective, Roopa seduces her mark, suffers vicious reprisals and goes undercover as a shit-clearing bhangi (untouchable) to get at her target.

Ings keeps the plot tantalisingly just beyond her grasp, lending Roopa an aspect of persistent failure and anchoring the novel's theme of tentacular global corruption that will never fully be brought to book.

Looping through London's Blitz, the 2004 South Asian tsunami and piracy off Sri Lanka's coast, Dead Water sets up its own turbulence of engrossing narratives that on rare occasions is too clever for its own purpose. Twins killed in a New Delhi-bound train crash become djinns that flit through the novel's continuum with mischievous intent but limited purpose: a slightly lazy device for creating mystical interference patterns whose limited purchase on the novel's fluid dynamics merely serves to dissipate some of the naturalistic tension of Ings's energetic prose style. The train crash itself, however, is relayed with brio, as is the arctic adventuring and Roopa's torture.

The novel's pre-occupation with the clandestine possibilities of container shipping recalls the slightly more tongue-in-cheek adventuring of William Gibson's Spook Country, but the tone of Dead Water more resembles the opaque Middle-Eastern chicanery of James Buchan's Heart's Journey in Winter. Ings writes engagingly well, balancing pacy plotting with textured characters and opaque loyalties to tease the reader, and making for a thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent yarn.