The United States has been dealing with pirates intermittently since the early 1800s. Thomas Jefferson disregarded the counsel of his well-meaning but invertebrate advisors, and instead sent the troops in to deal with the nest of vipers off the coast of Africa, a mission that is immortalized to this day in the United States Marine Corps Hymn. It is almost impossible to read Stephen Coonts’s rousing new novel without hearing the hymn echoing in the recesses of memory.
PIRATE ALLEY begins shortly before the Sultan of the Seas cruise ship is taken hostage by a motley group of Somali pirates. Their passengers are held for a thieves’ ransom --- $200 million --- by Mustafa al-Said, a self-styled privateer acting at the behest of Sheikh Ragnar, who fancies himself to be the king of all that he beholds (which is not much, by any standard). Ragnar sees a very simple a-to-b-to-c order of how things will happen. If the ransom is paid, the hostages will be released, and he will be rich beyond his wildest dreams; if the ransom goes unpaid, the hostages will be executed.
"Despite the grimness of the subject matter, PIRATE ALLEY is what used to be referred to as a gripping yarn, one with enough intriguing plot twists and characters to populate two or three books, yet it never becomes too weighed down by its own ballast."
A group of Islamic militants see things somewhat differently, though. They view Mustafa and Ragnar as little more than useful idiots --- an equation that is at least half-correct --- and plans to swoop in, take the money and execute the hostages after the ransom is paid. The intent is that the hostage execution will be the spark that ignites a Holy War in the Middle East, one that will sweep Islam across the planet. Ragnar is not interested in a Holy War, given that it will play havoc with any repeat business opportunities that might come his way later down the line --- that is, if he can survive this encounter successfully.
The U.S. administration is clueless as to what to do, so it brings in someone who does: Jake Grafton, a man with ice water in his veins and clear vision. The message that Coonts sends throughout PIRATE ALLEY is pitch-perfect: lead, follow, or get out of the way, and when you have Grafton leading, it is best to get out of the way. It takes the administration a good deal of the book to figure that out, but when it finally does, Grafton executes a daring plan in which he negotiates a win-win agreement with the pirates while sending Tommy Carmellini into the hot zone with a team of CIA and Navy SEAL operatives to effect a rescue of the 800-plus hostages and wipe the pirates and the Islamic soldiers off the face of the earth. There are, of course, all sorts of ticking clocks, including disease, bombs, and more ammunition than you can shake a stick at flying around with abandon, with the subtle message being that the most dangerous enemies Grafton faces are those seated behind mahogany desks in Washington, D.C.
Despite the grimness of the subject matter, PIRATE ALLEY is what used to be referred to as a gripping yarn, one with enough intriguing plot twists and characters to populate two or three books, yet it never becomes too weighed down by its own ballast. The conclusion gives some hint of changes to come in future installments of the series, but there is plenty here to hold over Coonts’s faithful readers in the interim and to reward their patience while they waited for this volume.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 24, 2013