Maas takes arms against a sea of shipwreck tales

The author of "Serpico" and "Underboss" adds to the deluge of books about watery death.

Published July 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Even though nearly everything he writes seems destined for the bestseller lists, "Serpico" and "Underboss" author Peter Maas once wrote a book that actually tanked. "The Terrible Hours," the true story of a 1939 marine rescue in the North Atlantic, came out in 1968, but according to Maas, it got lost in the tumult of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the coverage of the Vietnam War. "It sold like 300 copies," Maas confided to Salon Books. The book will be republished by HarperCollins this October, but it will face another kind of turbulence.

In the next few months, bookstores will be flooded with marine misadventure books, three of which focus on the disastrous Sydney-to-Hobart yachting race last December, in which a storm claimed the lives of seven sailors. McGraw-Hill has just published Rob Mundle's "Fatal Storm: The Inside Story of the Tragic Sydney-Hobart Race." Pocket Books, whose "Knockdown: The Harrowing True Account of a Yacht Race Turned Deadly" doesn't come out until September, has announced that it has produced an e-book version of the book, written by Martin Dugard. Willow Creek Press will publish Kim Leighton's "A Hard Chance: Terror Under Sail: The Sydney Hobart Race Disaster," in October. Those who want a complete set of Sydney-Hobart books, however, will have to wait until next year for Wall Street Journal writer Bruce Knecht's account, to be published by Little, Brown (No title has been announced yet, nor has Salon Books ascertained if it will contain a colon.) These books follow in the wake of Sebastian Junger's huge hit, "The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea."

"I did have Junger's book in the back of my mind," Maas said of his suggestion that Harper purchase the rights to his tale of brine and death and republish the title. Maas also said that the popularity of NBC anchor Tom Brokaw's book, "The Greatest Generation," and Steven Spielberg's war epic, "Saving Private Ryan," gave him the impression that today's readers would be more enthusiastic than the readers of the '60s were about World War II-era heroes like Swede Momsen, the protagonist of Maas' suspenseful yarn.

Momsen spearheaded the effort to rescue the surviving crew members of the Squalus, a submarine that sank off the New England coast. (Momsen, a marine researcher, was famous for inventing the Momsen lung -- a piece of scuba-diving equipment that reduces the risk of decompression sickness, or the bends.) "Unlike [Jacques] Cousteau, who was a big self-promoter, Momsen was the real thing," Maas said. The 69-year-old writer is sure of his book's success, despite its many competitors. "I think it's even more scary beneath the surface," Maas said.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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