Thursday, November 30, 2017

SINGLE & SINGLE – John le Carré

I laughed whenever I heard the whimpering sounds in the song Lawyers in Love, and I laughed in the movie Jurassic Park when the Tyrannosaurus plucks the screaming lawyer out of a privy and eats him. I might have laughed when Alfie, one of the lawyers in Single & Single was facing his execution, but I could not. That's because Alfie had gotten into my head cringing and prattling and babbling and wheedling and wetting his pants while staring down the muzzle of a Russian gangster's pistol. Almost wet my own pants as his fear clung to me for dear life.

At the same time Alfie is frantically applying his sizable lawyerly skills trying to persuade the gangsters they’re making a large mistake, his senses are heightened to excruciating acuteness, noticing smells and sounds and visual details as if discovering a new universe while his mind zips around, like a honeybee in a flower bed, sampling notions, memories, regrets, hopes, promises, possibilities, and impossibilities, his powers of denial gradually leaching away from the stark, unyielding core of the fate no one ever escapes.

This first scene/chapter has the kind of leap-into-the-deep-end writing that reminded me I’d neglected le Carré far too long. My blogging buddies Sergio at Tipping My Fedora, and Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery are way ahead of me, and their reviews have enticed me back to the fold. And their reviews are real reviews, with knowledge of the le Carré canon lending an authority to their opinions I cannot match. Nor, as a reader whose priority is entertainment, do I care a whit for authority in trying to convey my experience to you—unless, of course I come away from the book with a bad taste, and, if so, I let you know straight up. Le Carré had me in the palm of his authorial hand with Single & Single. Savory all the way. Ordinarily when reading fiction I suspend my critical faculties—such as they are—surrendering to atmosphere and character and being pulled willy nilly through story by a narrative subtly subordinate to the experience. The author’s wizardry casts a spell that carries me over the occasional bump or odd turn with no inclination on my part to give these micro distractions a hold on my attention. Le Carré’s skills worked this magic on me with singular success in Single & Single haha.

I’ve already started Our Game (for next week), which Sergio says in his review of Single & Single is a tad better. Thus far, Our Game does feel more plot-friendly, with its single narrator and a storyline like a monster storm edging up over the treeline. Both are set in the immediate post-Cold War, with Our Game’s focus apparently more on the sputtering remnants of East/West spy intrigues and Single & Single’s on the feeding frenzy of greedy, crooked venture capitalists and international crime networks grabbing what they can of the fallen Soviet economy’s material assets.

One aspect of Single & Single that had a special resonance with me is the relationship between the two principal characters—the crooked big-time lawyer Tiger Single and his honorable, somewhat bumbling son, Oliver. Le Carré acknowledges in the book’s introduction his personal father/son relationship suggested the fictional one in Single & Single, as it did also in The Perfect Spy. Not up to the bummer of doing an actual biography of his own father, he says, he nonetheless can’t resist bringing an imagined version of him into his fiction. “ is inevitable,” he explains, “that now and then I propose a version of him, not an actual version, not a snippet of documentary, but a hypothesis, a ‘what-if.’ And the ‘what-if ‘ in Single & Single is this: What if my father, instead of being rumbled by the forces of the law—which sadly for him was regularly the case—what if, like so many of the bent businessmen around him, he had got away with his scams scot free, and become, as he always dreamed of becoming, a respected fat-cat of the West End, owner of an instant ancient pile in Buckinghamshire, president of the local football club, cricket club, giver of garden fêtes for the renewal of the church roof?

What if, instead of merely enrolling from time to time as a law student, he had possessed enough self-discipline to study law rather than just finger it—and had thus acquired the skills that enable so many crooked lawyers to flourish in the world of finance?”

Perhaps this subliminal association brought an extra dimension to the characters, making them more empathic to me, and maybe the troubled father/son dynamic attracted my attention more closely, as well. Single & Single’s other characters are pretty much from Central Casting—Brock, the good guy representing the British Customs Office in an unspecified “interservice task force,” who recruits Oliver to help bring down the elder Single’s crooked empire; the rough-hewn Georgia-Russian patriarch; his dark-eyed poetic daughter (who captures Oliver’s heart); and her husband, the ex-KGB gangster whose face and manner gradually morph (for me) into Vladimir Putin’s.

Tiger Single, while nearly a caricature of the sort of James Cagney charming/tough-guy operator, has enough real blood in him to be believable, especially as seen through the sensibility of his doting-yet-horrified son. The son, Oliver, is one of the more simpatico characters I’ve come across in any fiction genre, if only for the avocation he works so hard to perfect, entertaining children with magic shows. We find him constantly practicing his skills--sleight of hand maneuvers and making figures out of balloons—between episodes of high danger and unimaginable suspense:

Balloons were Oliver’s sanity and Brearly was his mentor. When he could resolve nothing else in life, he could still set a box of balloons at his feet and recall Brearly on the arts of modeling...

The balloon burst, but Oliver—who in the normal way held himself responsible for every natural or unnatural disaster—did not scold himself. There was not a magician on earth, he was assured by Brearly, who could beat bad luck with a balloon, and Oliver believed this.”

A little nuts, my lawyer dad would have said, but on another occasion he would have assured me, “everyone’s a little nuts,” albeit never including himself in that assessment.

le Carré

For me, the two central characters in Our Game have proven thus far to be rather predictable. Larry, the scamp, a former British Intelligence operative who disappears, is the most interesting. But I don’t like him. Engaging though he is I wouldn’t let him near me, especially were I with a beautiful woman. Oh, hell, I despise the punk! He’s better looking than I was at his age, smarter, and can do apparently anything he wishes to do, again, better than I ever could had I tried. The other fellow, who narrates the novel and whose name I believe is—I could flip back to the Kindle app to refresh my memory, but it doesn’t matter. The guy’s too bland, too passive, too deserving of having Larry steal the beautiful musician half his age who’s living with him. But I’ve just started this one. Le Carré might well surprise me. He’s done it time and time again.

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

MRS. MCGINTY'S DEAD – Agatha Christie

Had I any inkling Agatha Christie was this good—the humor, the characters, the crafty plotting, the...I'll think of more, trust me—I would have started on her gargantuan canon ages ago. Ages ago! Mrs. McGinty’s Dead is only my third Christie—and my second Hercule Poirot, and I’m so so far behind, just thinking about it makes me feel verklempt.

Hercule Poirot. What a character for a detective! [That’s two exclamation points. I’m allowing myself five for this report.] I said in my report on The Orient Express that Peter Lorre would have (and might have) made a terrific Poirot. And what a switch that would be, Poirot slapping Sam Spade around and Spade liking it! [two more] But there’s no Sam Spade in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, alas, but it was fun imagining Spade eavesdropping while Poirot’s saying this to himself:
“It is my weakness, it has always been my weakness, to desire to show off...But indeed it is very necessary for a man of my abilities to admire himself— and for that one needs stimulation from outside. I cannot, truly I cannot, sit in a chair all day reflecting how truly admirable I am. One needs the human touch. One needs—as they say nowadays—the stooge.”
Spade, of course, would have thought Poirot considered him the stooge. Oh, the fun. Who gets slapped versus who deserves to get slapped...but in this instance Poirot is thinking about his friend Hastings, “My first friend in this country— and still to me the dearest friend I have. True, often and often did he enrage me. But do I remember that now? No. I remember only his incredulous wonder, his openmouthed appreciation of my talents— the ease with which I misled him without uttering an untrue word, his bafflement, his stupendous astonishment when he at last perceived the truth that had been clear to me all along.”
As I was reading this I had a sudden urge to slap him myself—Poirot, that is, and then realized he was only a figment of Agatha Christie’s bathtub-conjuring imagination. What fun she must have had with what at least one of her characters describes as a “ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously.”
And she turns the unforgiving spotlight on herself! [last one] She appears thinly disguised, one presumes, as Ariadne Oliver, here describing how she loathes one of her characters:
“‘How do I know?’ said Mrs. Oliver crossly. ‘How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something—and people seem to like it—and then you go on—and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond of him? If I met that bony, gangling, vegetable-eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.’” [watch out, Poirot! (exclamation points don’t count in brackets)]
And here’s a confession: “What a mistake for an author to emerge from her secret fastness. Authors were shy, unsociable creatures, atoning for their lack of social aptitude by inventing their own companions and conversations.”
Yup. An authentic ring, for sure. Poor shy, unsociable Dame Agatha—somehow that doesn’t ring so true. Ah, well, on to the puzzle.
Poirot has just gotten home, having walked from a “dingy little” French restaurant he’d only just discovered, where he’d enjoyed a superb meal—a big deal, in fact, for him: “‘The truth is,’ Poirot reflected as he turned his steps homeward, ‘I am not in tune with the modern world. And I am, in a superior way, a slave as other men are slaves. My work has enslaved me just as their work enslaves them. When the hour of leisure arrives, they have nothing with which to fill their leisure. The retired financier takes up golf, the little merchant puts bulbs in his garden, me, I eat. But there it is, I come round to it again. One can only eat three times a day. And in between are the gaps.’”
Anyway, when he arrives home George, his “manservant,” greets him at the door and informs him he has a visitor. Poirot discovers it’s Superintendent Spence of the Kilchester Police, with whom he’d worked evidently some while in the past. Spence’s conscience is bothering him. He’d investigated a murder that led to the conviction of a man who was now two weeks away from the gallows. Despite fairly obvious circumstantial evidence against the man, Spence has a nagging suspicion he’s innocent of the killing. He wants Poirot to re-open the investigation in the hope that if someone else is guilty it could be proven in time to save the condemned man from hanging.
The victim, of course, was Mrs. McGinty, a cleaning lady, and the man convicted of splitting her skull open was her roomer. But of course Poirot takes the case, and of course… It starts out simply enough. Poirot takes a room in the small community where Mrs. McGinty had lived. He gets to know people there, focusing on those whose homes Mrs. McGinty had cleaned. Remember, he has a two-week deadline to find the real murderer, or at least find new evidence tightening the rope around the roomer’s neck and putting Supt. Spence’s conscience to rest. I needn’t tell you things get complicated. Even more complicated than The Murder on the Orient Express, which I reported on last week (without telling you just how complicated it was—discussing plot details is not my thing, as I’m always afraid I’ll inadvertently tip the author’s hand and spoil the ending—same thing could happen here, despite the complexity of the backgrounds of Poirot’s, and our, suspects). But for those of you drooling over the prospect of one helluva good murder-plot puzzle, trust me, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead won’t let you down. Actually, the plot is so complicated I’d have to read the novel again just to make sure I had everything straight enough to give you a spoiler-free synopsis, were something of that sort even possible.
What I can do, and am quite willing to do, is to reveal Poirot’s strategy in trying to shake loose information from residents of this small community who do not share Supt. Spence’s pang of conscience. They believe the jury that convicted the roomer had no choice based on what was apparently irrefutable evidence. Poirot let it be known to everyone with whom he spoke, that new evidence had come to his attention. The idea was that if the killer was still at large, he or she might get nervous and do something revealing. Poirot counted on his reputation to enhance this effect. Yet, when he introduces himself to his temporary landlady at the guest house where he’s staying, she, Maureen Summerhayes (a redhead—Christie’s had one in all three of her novels I’ve read) is not impressed:
“‘I should, perhaps, madame, tell you a little more about myself. I am Hercule Poirot.’
“The revelation left Mrs. Summerhayes unmoved. ‘What a lovely name,’ she said kindly. ‘Greek, isn’t it?’
“‘I am, as you may know,’ said Poirot, ‘a detective.’ He tapped his chest. ‘Perhaps the most famous detective there is.’
“Mrs. Summerhayes screamed with amusement.”
No longer amused, is she, when Poirot finally gathers all of his suspects (including her) in her guest house to reveal his solution to the puzzle. But first we see him at perhaps his most vulnerable:
“‘I get nowhere— nowhere,’ said Poirot to himself. ‘There is nothing— no little gleam. I can well understand the despair of Superintendent Spence. But it should be different for me. Superintendent Spence, he is a good and painstaking police officer, but me, I am Hercule Poirot. For me, there should be illumination!’ [...]
“He was the great, the unique Hercule Poirot, but he was also a very old man and his shoes were tight."

But now, with the suspects gathered together, Poirot plays his hand: “A new note crept into his voice. He was no longer a ridiculous little man with an absurd mustache and dyed hair, he was a hunter very close to his quarry.”
And so, the murderer of Mrs. McGinty is… Mwaaaahahahahaaa...

[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, November 16, 2017


I should point out first off that until I began reading Murder on the Orient Express last week I had no idea Hercule Poirot was such a “ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously.” This from the mouth of Mary Debenham, one of the eponymous train’s passengers who, along with me and other first-time readers of Agatha Christie’s most popular fictional detective series, soon will come to see Poirot in a more dangerous light.

Also, as Murder on the Orient Express was first published some 83 years ago, I must assume most if not all readers here know how it ends—either from having read the novel or seen one of its various film adaptations, including the one just released starring Kenneth Branagh as the “ridiculous-looking little man.” Yet, for the theoretical one or two of you who might look forward to being kept in suspense along with everyone on the train, including Poirot, I shall do my damnedest to keep even the slightest potential spoiler from your eyes. Truth be told, although I’d seen one of the film adaptations—the 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Poirot—seen it a couple of times in fact, I had forgotten most of the plot, including the whodunnit part, until I started reading the novel. That’s no reflection on Christie’s plot, which is ingenious if a tad gimmicky, but on my own shortcoming in not retaining as much passively as when written words engage my imagination.
What I offer here is a brief synopsis of the plot and some observations of Christie’s style and characters, quirks and anything else of note that comes to mind.

First the synopsis: heavy snow blocks train miles from nowhere; a man whose sinister eyes give everyone the impression he’s dangerous, or even evil, turns up stabbed to death in his compartment; Poirot investigates, learns the killer had to be someone in this particular car because it was locked on either end and no footprints made by a possible killer were seen in the snow; because there is no way to reach the outside world Poirot cannot confirm any of the background stories the passengers give him, leaving it up to his world-renowned detective’s brain to deduce which of them is the murderer.
Sounds like a parlor game, and in all likelihood there is one, or more, based on this scenario. But the skillful way Christie presents it, giving us character-studies that start on the surface and incrementally penetrate the layers, Murder on the Orient Express has—or had for me
Albert Finney
, anyway—the effect of a plausible real-life event. Then again, I’m relatively new to the classic
puzzle plot style, unfamiliar with what I presume are the genre’s standard tropes, and with a perhaps unusually suggestive imagination. In more conventional terms, this one “worked for me”--despite finding myself quickly remembering how the thing ended. I had as much fun knowing where the story led and how Christie and Poirot got there than I’ve had ordinarily trying to follow or outwit a fictional detective when I was unsure who the killer was or what was his or her motive for the killing.
At least one surprise for me could not have been intentional. Right off the bat, Christie slapped me awake with the novel’s first two sentences: “It was five o’clock on a winter’s morning in Syria. Alongside the platform at Aleppo stood the train grandly designated in railway guides as the Taurus Express."
David Suchet
Aleppo. Yikes. Had Christie only known the heartbreak that city’s name would connote in years to come. Fortunately for us she mentions it only the once before jettisoning it from the story. But by then she had me absolutely aboard the snowbound train, locked inside the Stamboul-Calais coach with Hercule Poirot, a dozen murder suspects, and the corpse of a man neither Poirot nor any of the suspects had found at all likable.
Three suspects I recognized right away as perhaps Christie’s ensemble types. As this was only the second of her canon I’ve read, I’d be surprised if there were not more. In Orient the types are represented by the anonymous, tall, red-headed woman, the jabbering American woman “Caroline Hubbard,” and the yellow-complected, elderly, ugly Princess Dragomiroff. In the first Christie I read, Destination Unknown, these three types appeared as Hilary Craven, the tall, red-headed woman protagonist, Mrs. Calvin Baker as the jabbering American, and the elderly, ugly, yellow-complected Monsieur Aristides. In both novels these elderly fossils made up for their withered, yellow ugliness by intelligent, forceful eyes.
Robert Powell
Christie really gets into describing uglies. Here’s her take on Princess Dragomiroff: her “small toad-like face looked even yellower than the day before. She was certainly ugly, and yet, like the toad, she had eyes like jewels, dark and imperious, revealing latent energy and an intellectual force that could be felt at once.” I could substitute Monsieur Aristides for the princess in that description without missing a beat. I haven’t come across a Peter Lorre or Sydney Greenstreet type yet, but I have many more Christies ahead in which to find them. Come to think of it, Lorre, with his smarmy voice and his leering eyes complemented by bat-wing mustaches (Christie prefers the plural, presumably considering each wing a separate ‘stache), might have made a perfect Poirot—in fact, so many have played the brilliant “ridiculous-looking little man” on film, he might actually have done so. Can you believe Tony Randall in the role? See photo.
Oh yes, Tony Randall
It’s apparent from just these two novels that Christie, besides being a masterful plot-maker, has loads of fun describing her characters, and not just for her own amusement. Take the villain, for example, please. Hahaha. Christie sets us up nicely to loathe the dude by indirection. He never speaks, that I recall, except to other characters who report what he said. But here’s Poirot’s first impression of the fellow known as Ratchett (the name itself is our first clue, sort of rhyming as it does with “wretched”): “He was a man of between sixty and seventy. From a little distance he had the bland aspect of a philanthropist. His slightly bald head, his domed forehead, the smiling mouth that displayed a very white set of false teeth, all seemed to speak of a benevolent personality. Only the eyes belied this assumption. They were small, deep set and crafty. Not only that. As the man, making some remark to his young companion, glanced across the room, his gaze stopped on Poirot for a moment, and just for that second there was a strange malevolence, and unnatural tensity in the glance.” Need we know more? I don’t. Where’s the knife? Let me at the scoundrel!
Not that Murder on the Orient Express is a forgotten book, far from it. More like unforgettable. Yet, it’s joining the others on Patti Abbott’s Friday’sForgottenBooks feature, which,this week is hosted by the inimitable Todd Mason.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

CRASHBACK – Michael Fabey

The story of David and Goliath in a kinder, gentler Old Testament translation would have young David, instead of killing Goliath with his slingshot, chasing him off the field of battle while hurling nothing more than angry words at the fearsome giant. Had that been the case, the word philistine today, instead of a curse, would be a joke. Likewise the U.S. Navy in some minds suffered similar ignominy when a peewee Chinese amphibian, firing no more than angry words on its radio, chased a fearsome guided missile cruiser three times its size from the South China Sea.

Military journalist Michael Fabey uses this Dec. 5, 2013 embarrassing incident involving the USS Cowpens to underline his wake-up call for sleeping politicians that despite China’s official posture of civility on the world stage it’s quietly conducting a crash program to build a navy that can supplant U.S. dominance in the Western Pacific. And the Chinese are not waiting until they have more than their one aircraft carrier. They’re already pushing into places long claimed by their Western Pacific neighbors, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam. The most obvious and egregious Chinese incursion has been the building up a string of coral deposits into man-made islands and claiming them as Chinese territory. Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. forces in the Pacific, calls this buildup a “Great Wall of Sand,” on which the Chinese will locate forward military bases.

Fabey’s just-released book, Crashback, explores the political, economic, and military history of this region as background to his examining the implications of more recent events and policies. His own background includes decades of award-winning reporting on military and naval affairs for such publications as Defense News, Aviation Week, and Jane’s. His integrity as a journalist gained him access to the upper command levels of both the Chinese and U.S. navies as well as sailors in the enlisted ranks. Bringing sourcing and research of this caliber to Crashback gives a sobering credibility to Fabey’s conclusion that we are already at war with China, albeit what the Chinese themselves are calling a “warm war.” But it’s a war that could quickly go hot. And if it does, no one who’s read Crashback can say they were not warned.

As Fabey argues in his prologue: “It’s a war over tiny specks of land and vast reaches of sea and sky, a warm war of dangerous confrontations and small escalations, a war over military hegemony and the diplomatic and economic influence that naturally follows that hegemony. It’s a war that pits a diminished U.S. Navy, which sailed the Pacific virtually unchallenged for decades, against a burgeoning Chinese navy that is evolving with astonishing speed from a coastal defense force to a “blue-water” fleet capable of projecting power throughout the region. It’s a warm war in which China is trying to gain ownership and military control of some of the world’s most economically vital waters.

And it is a war that the United States has been losing.”

Michael Fabey

If Crashback becomes the handbook that spurs U.S. leaders—civilian and military—into turning the situation around, Fabey says the Chinese have their own book that’s spurring them on to challenge U.S. dominance: The “widely influential 2010 book The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era. It was written by a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel named Liu Mingfu, one of China’s most respected military writers and international strategists…

In the book, Colonel Liu posits that America’s historically brief time of worldwide hegemony is passing, and that it is China’s manifest destiny to take America’s place as the leader among the world’s nations—starting in the Western Pacific. America will resist, the colonel says, the U.S. and China will initially fight a “warm war”—he uses that very phrase—for military and geopolitical hegemony in the region. There will be confrontations, shows of force, periodic crises. But in the end, the colonel says, China will prevail. And one reason it will prevail is this: Although it wants peace, China is not afraid of war. And America is.”

Fabey describes in moment-to-moment detail several recent examples of China’s thumbing its nose at international rules of the sea to confront with hostility U.S. intelligence-gathering maneuvers in international waters over which China claims territorial privilege. His flagship example is the Cowpens incident from which he’s titled the book. It began with the guided-missile cruiser steaming near China’s first and only aircraft carrier to gather electronic signals from the ship and its amphibian escorts. When spotted, the Cowpens’s radio crackles with demands from the Chinese carrier to leave the area. The Cowpens answers that what it is doing is legal. This exchange continues until two of the carrier’s amphibian escorts move toward the Cowpens in a threatening manner. The cruiser continues on its course, about ten miles away and heading toward the carrier, until one of the amphibians “suddenly turns and cuts across the Cowpens’s bow at an oblique angle, so close that it’s in the Cowpens’s ‘forward shadow zone,’ part of it disappearing from...sight under the front end of the cruiser.
USS Cowpens
It’s crunch time. Several things are in play at this point. It’s the first time China has openly challenged a U.S. warship in international waters. If the Cowpens continues ahead it will hit the amphibian, crushing it and sending it and its crew to the bottom of the sea. The Cowpens’s captain has been given conflicting orders—perhaps impossible, Catch-22 orders. As Fabey puts it: “to boldly take his ship and his crew into harm’s way—but for God’s sake, don’t let anything unpleasant happen out there.”

Fabey describes Captain Greg Gombert as “tall (six-foot-six) and lean, with blue eyes and a shock of brown hair, dressed in the navy’s new working uniform of one-piece blue coveralls. Intense, driven, supremely self-confident, he pushes his ship and his crew—and himself—hard. The product of a strict midwestern Catholic upbringing, steeped in the concepts of duty and hard work, at age forty-four Gombert is a man who has never failed at anything— and he doesn’t intend to fail in this mission.”

A Goliath of a man, perhaps, commanding most certainly a Goliath of a ship with “an astonishing amount of firepower.” It’s a Ticonderoga-class cruiser of a design “to be the most powerful surface warships ever to put to sea, under any flag, in any century.”

Let’s let Fabey describe what happens now: “Radios squawk out angry English—“ Leave the area! Leave the area!” On the decks, sailors who can see what’s going on are giving each other “Holy shit!” looks. On the bridge, the junior officers are looking desperately at Captain Gombert, who stares out at the rapidly nearing amphib, knowing he has to make a decision— and that there’s no good decision to make. In the end, he has no choice. “ALL BACK EMERGENCY FULL! BRACE! BRACE! BRACE!” In an instant the massive gears deep in the ship go from full ahead to neutral to full reverse, while the cruiser’s four twenty-thousand-horsepower-each engines are screaming to provide full power. The effect is like a jumbo jet landing on a too-short runway; the bow pushes down, the stern rises up. Throughout the ship, sailors and officers have to grab the nearest handholds to keep from being tumbled forward. The collision warning alarm bounces off metal bulkheads throughout the ship, like the flailing of a gong. It’s not at all certain that the ship will be able to stop in time.

Finally, after it’s traveled two ship lengths, about twelve hundred feet, the Cowpens’s reversing screws generate enough counterforce to slow the cruiser’s forward momentum and bring it to a full stop, a mere one hundred yards short of the amphib. And in that moment, just before the screws start pulling the ship backward, the mighty USS Cowpens is DIW, lying dead in the water in the South China Sea.
peewee Chinese amphibian

Old navy surface warfare sailors have a word for this kind of unusual emergency at-sea stopping maneuver. They call it a “crashback”— and for a U.S. Navy warship, and its captain, having to execute a crashback is never a good thing.” Not even when Gombert was following orders from his superiors as well as observing a law of the sea that “you do everything you can to avoid a collision, no matter who’s at fault.”

Gombert turns the Cowpens around and heads away, with one of the little amphibians in pursuit “like a yapping dog chasing a car."

The Cowpens’s—and the U.S. Navy’s—embarrassment had a lasting ripple effect Fabey sees as bringing a more realistic outlook among this country’s leadership. He’s cautiously optimistic:

America of 2017 is not the America of 2013. And the next time the Chinese navy dangerously confronts a U.S. Navy warship on the high seas, it seems unlikely that it will be the American commander who orders the engine room to execute an ‘all back emergency full.’

For America, and for the U.S. Navy, the era of crashbacks seems to be over.”