cover image Torchlight


Robert Louis Stevenson. Putnam Publishing Group, $24.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-399-14315-1

It's fitting that the promising debut from a descendant of Robert Louis Stevenson concerns a sunken treasure--in this case, a billion dollars in gold in the decaying hull of a cruiser torpedoed in 1918 off the coast of Rhode Island. The pirate of the tale, arms dealer Eric Gerhardt, needs the gold to use as front money for a nuclear weapons deal he's brokering between Saddam Hussein and some renegade Russians. But someone in his organization has leaked the plans to the CIA, and the company has sent two divers to infiltrate the operation: agent Jack Henderson and ex-SEAL Philip Drake. After setting up what promises to be a series of nail-biting deep-sea dives, Stevenson throws the first of many well-placed curves by widening the focus to include a political subplot. It seems that Gerhardt has something on the current president of the U.S., which is bad news for Drake and Henderson and great news for those who like tense, complex thrillers. Like a cynical (and well-edited) Tom Clancy, Stevenson puts believable characters into tight plots. If there's a hint of autobiography here (Drake and his creator are both accomplished scuba-divers known for their dangerous explorations of the sunken cruise ship Andrea Doria), Stevenson is obviously writing about what he knows best, and it shows. The underwater scenes are riveting, so much so that the rest of the novel pales somewhat in comparison. But only a little. Judging by this well-constructed and thoroughly enjoyable debut, the modern Robert Louis Stevenson has inherited some of his namesake's storytelling gift. (Oct.)