reviewed by Lou Jacobs
A high-octane military thriller (with elements of a locked room mystery) aboard an aircraft carrier at sea, as crew keep disappearing. Steel Fear is a character and plot driven mystery with mounting tension, anxiety, and terror.
The initial two disappearances are thought to be “suicides,” although both of their notes are typed and unsigned. This occurs shortly after a helicopter and all crew perish in an explosive crash on a routine training mission due to “pilot error.”
Shortly after the crash, one of the six helicopters aboard is diverted to Bahrain to pick up a Navy SEAL sniper, who will accompany the ship until its final destination in San Diego. Enter the main protagonist, Chief Finn, anything but a typical hero. Short and wiry, with oversized eyes, and described by some as a marsupial. Our quirky, and flawed anti-hero—although haunted by a traumatic childhood, and somewhat of a recluse—is quite intelligent and calculating with a highly deductive mindset and certainly belongs to this elite group. Once on board, Finn treats his confinement as a mission. He stalks the corridors of the ship and interacts with crew members, while gathering intel. This is the key to any mission: mastering the terrain. He quickly identifies the crew’s low morale due to their long deployment without leave, and also partly due to the ship’s poor leadership of their captain. Captain Eagleberg is more worried about a possible upcoming promotion than the proper every-day running of a ship.
When crew members continue to inexplicably disappear the tension, terror and anxiety are palpably escalated. In proper psychological warfare, the entire crew is crippled with confusion, chaos, and terror. All soon realize that they are trapped aboard with a serial killer. The reader is treated to some of the heinous manners in which the crew are disposed of. Finn takes it upon himself to investigate. Neither the Captain or Finn himself are aware of the reason he is being recalled back to the States. The Captain surmises he is spying on him and the ship, while Finn is wondering if he is being recalled in disgrace. Finn admittedly suffers from “gaps” in his memory. His last mission was a failure, which was based upon poor intel. However, an innocent village close to his mission area was reportedly annihilated with atrocities committed against man, woman and children. He is unaware of any connection to this rogue mission.
Webb and Mann expertly weave a complex and twisted narrative, that is thoroughly authentic and chilling. Multiple possible characters are developed in convincing detail to cast suspicion on their true motivations and actions. Although Finn himself is considered a plausible killer, the twisted reveals cast doubt on many of the players. The senior staff and captain appear poorly prepared to investigate the possible presence of a serial killer. Finn, like a wandering samurai and bloodhound, tracks and stalks the ship for clues in his search for the killer amongst them. Only one who has experienced real-life action can provide the authentic cinematic smell, sounds, and terror of this situation.
The short chapters in multiple points of view provide for a propulsive read and page-turner. Daring the reader to not read the next chapter and miss an unexpected reveal. Although both authors are best-selling authors of non-fiction, Webb is a decorated Navy SEAL with multiple action-based deployments in his past. This well-suited partnership into fiction is a highly anticipated debut for both authors. Hopefully the enigmatic character and background of Finn will be developed further in future novels.
Thanks to NetGalley and Random House Publishing Group for supplying an Uncorrected Proof in exchange for an honest review.