Gene Lyons
July 19, 1991 AT 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
Peter Benchley
Random House
Mystery and Thriller, Fiction

We gave it an B

Sea monster quiz: What mythical salt-water beast has no gills, no lungs, no air bladder to give it buoyancy, green blood, an acrid smell, an indiscriminate killer instinct, and the capacity to devour even the biggest sharks as if they were cocktail shrimp? Clue: Homer’s Odysseus and Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo both had nasty experiences with the brute. Not half so nasty, perhaps, as the encounter between it and the hero of Beast, Capt. Whip Darling (honest), but bad enough. Indeed, should Peter Benchley’s latest deep-sea thriller enjoy anything like the success of Jaws — which so frightened vacationers back in 1975 that there were shark sightings in Iowa ponds — the island nation of Bermuda had better prepare itself for hard times.

Still mystified? Then imagine yourself a diver exploring a shipwreck off Bermuda when the monster swims into view, eyes the size of manhole covers, fanged tentacles waving, and ravenous beak clacking open and shut like a turtle the size of an 18-wheeler. If by some miracle you survive, you’ll never eat calamari again.

That’s right, we’re talking about Architeuthis dux here, your basic giant squid, driven from the fathomless depths to run amok on the fished-out coral reefs of the resort island. Nature, you see, is out of joint. Man in his greed has treated the ocean ”as if it were a deep pit to be strip-mined” — and so altered the aquatic environment that ”reefs that had once teemed with life were as empty as a train station after a bomb scare.”

The decimation of the fish population has created a dilemma for hero and monster alike. For the fiercely independent Capt. Darling, scion of generations of seafarers, ”being a fisherman in Bermuda had become about as practical a profession as trying to be a ski instructor in the Congo.” Bankruptcy looms. Meanwhile, thousands of feet below, our cephalopod friend is also feeling the pinch: ”But now the rhythmic cycles that propelled the creature through life had been disrupted. Food was no longer abundant…Instinct was telling it to hunt.”

At first the tentacled beast does just fine, swallowing the occasional tourist without leaving much in the way of clues. But then he makes the mistake of gobbling the children of New York media magnate Osborn Manning, who launches an Ahab-like mission of vengeance. With the help of an academic squid expert desperate for scientific glory and a headline-grabbing local bureaucrat who just happens to be Capt. Darling’s nemesis, it’s not long before a bad situation has become a lot worse.

Like a latter-day Achilles, Darling at first resists entreaties to join the suicidal quest. Needless to say, however, events soon compel him into action. And stirring action it is. Benchley’s no Herman Melville, and he doesn’t pretend to be. Briskly narrated and as neatly choreographed as any pro wrestling extravaganza, Beast affords readers the diverting spectacle of one stuffed shirt after another vanishing into the monster’s craw before a hero appears — if not quite the one we’re expecting — to set the world aright. And next summer? Beast, the motion picture. B

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