Traditionally a rarity that only the elite enjoyed, shark fin soup suddenly fell within the reach of the general population after the Chinese economic miracle had taken the world by storm. More dollar billionaires emerged in China than in any other country and, soon, all wedding banquets across the social strata began featuring the delicacy. People used it as means to flaunt their money, and social pressures made the soup a must-have status symbol. Consequently, many nations bordering seas began to contribute to the slaughter of sharks. Any shark became fair game and the balance of nature wobbled as tens of millions of the sea creatures were killed annually.

As with any high-value item, shark fins rapidly attracted the attention of organised crime, starting with the triads in Hong Kong. The country became a holding and staging post, where almost all the cruelly severed fins were gathered, dried and forwarded to buyers across China. Sharks badly needed a human champion, or become extinct.

The protagonist of Charles Barker’s new novel, The Maritime Betrayal, is 30-year-old Claire Armstrong. Introduced at age 12 to diving and the sea world by her father — a marine biologist and oceanographer — she grows up fantasising about mermaids, and later joins the Special Boat Service (SBS), an elite unit of the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. About a decade later, she quits the SBS, holding the rank of captain, and joins her father’s non-governmental organisation called the Protection of Sea Creatures (POSC), based in Hong Kong.

The POSC’s work clashes directly with the illegal fishing and lucrative shark fin trade, which is controlled by powerful and ruthless organised crime syndicates that have tentacles all around the world. As a result, in his attempts to protect marine life, Armstrong senior — despite his cautious and diplomatic approach — makes the wrong kind of violent enemies in several countries.

Not long after she arrives in Hong Kong, Claire finds herself frustrated by the POSC’s failure to make much progress in curtailing the illegal trade in shark fins. After a heated meeting and altercation with the government authorities responsible (many officials are on the payroll of the criminals) a hit squad is despatched to the Armstrong home.

A bloodbath ensues but, thanks to her military training, Claire not only survives the attack, she also manages to kill all the four assassins. Her father, however, is not so lucky. Claire then vows to find her father’s killers and avenge her loss in her own way, despite the opposition of the NGO’s peaceful veteran management that has loyally worked with her father for years.

That the fins were gristly and tasteless, adding nothing to the flavours of the soup broth, made no difference. Eating shark fin soup was all about status, and so its popularity and prices soared. — Excerpt from the book

When Claire turns to her former colleagues from the elite force in her war against the powerful international network of criminals (and their accomplices in the government as well as police), Jason, bored with his comfortable and lucrative civilian job, is the first to volunteer for her mission.

After extensive research, the duo identifies the local gang behind the murder of Claire’s father and inflicts heavy losses on the gang’s operations and the warehouses where the valuable contraband goods are stored. They also discover clues to other associate gangs. A war with the crime syndicates begins, which takes Claire and her growing number of comrades to the high seas on more ambitious and bloody operations. Costa Rica, Japan, China, and other places become the battlegrounds, and they arrange and smuggle weapons and explosives for these operations through clever scheming.

Meanwhile, Claire learns that all these criminal organisations are covertly controlled by the Campbell Trading Company, based in Hong Kong and owned by Sir Iain Campbell, a formidable pillar of society.

The climax of the novel takes place in the chapter ‘Action at Sea’. Plans for a sea battle to destroy a whaling vessel are engineered and put into action. The detailed commando operation, with strategic deception manoeuvres by a relatively small team of operatives, culminates in the dramatic destruction and sinking of the target vessel.

The characters in the novel — including the crews of both the sides, good and bad, as well as their handlers and other players — are brought to life with remarkable dexterity, portrayed in a most lively and plausible manner. The relationships and interaction between the various sets of characters are shown realistically and convincingly.

What makes The Maritime Betrayal a compelling novel is meticulous and thorough research and the highly believable scenario it constructs. The technical specifications of ships, weapons, sea manoeuvres, the organisational structures of the crime syndicates, various operational deployments and underwater marine life are so vividly described that, at times, one feels as though one is watching an entrancing and suspenseful documentary rather than reading a novel.

Barker is a professional of the hotel industry and has worked in several countries, including Pakistan. He is also a motivational speaker and actively engaged with NGOs working against the inhumane practice of shark-finning. The Maritime Betrayal is his third full-length novel, preceded by The Brown Envelope Club and The Iraqi Deception.

The reviewer is a freelance writer and translator of Freedom of the Press: The War on Words 1977-1978; and Mr. and Mrs. Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India, in English and Urdu respectively

The Maritime Betrayal
By Charles Barker
Farman, Islamabad
ISBN: 979-8646032608
336pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 22nd, 2020