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Book review: Coonts hero battles terrorists on the high seas

By James E. Casto

"Pirate Alley." By Stephen Coonts. St. Martin's Press. 310 pages. $26.99.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia native Stephen Coonts hit it big with his first novel, "Flight of the Intruder," published in 1986, and he's given his many fans a whole shelf of reliable reading in the years since.

Born in Morgantown, Coonts grew up in Buckhannon. Graduating from West Virginia University in 1968, he joined the Navy, where he learned to fly and spent two years piloting A-6 Intruder bombers over Vietnam and Laos. He drew heavily on his own military experience in writing "Flight of the Intruder," which spent 28 weeks on the New York Times best-sellers list. That success prompted Coonts to put his career as a lawyer aside and devote himself full time to writing. He's been hard at it ever since, publishing a long string of action-backed best-sellers.

His latest novel, "Pirate Alley," has a plot that's ripped straight out of the news.

A luxury cruise ship is attacked and captured by a ruthless band of Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. An initial rescue attempt fails. The pirates demand a ransom of $200 million. If their demand is unmet, they threaten to begin systematically executing the liner's 850 passengers and crewmembers they hold hostage.

But an even more dangerous conspiracy emerges. Information gleaned from a captured al-Qaida operative indicates that if the ransom is paid, Islamic militants intend to swoop in and slaughter the hostages in a full-out blood bath. Al-Qaida hopes the massacre will provoke a massive U.S. military response that will inflame the entire Muslim world.

Enter Jack Grafton. In 10 previous novels, Coonts has taken the two-fisted Grafton from a young Navy pilot ("Flight of the Intruder") to a two-star admiral working with the CIA. In "Pirate Alley," Grafton is assigned to negotiate with the brutal pirate chief. Instead, he teams up with his right-hand man Tommy Carmellini and a team of CIA operatives and Navy SEALs to, of course, outfox both the pirates and al-Qaida.

Now, nobody would mistake this for the kind of fiction they hand out Pulitzer Prizes for. But if you, like me, enjoy real page-turning adventure tales, then this is one for your must-read list.

Retired Huntington newspaperman James E. Casto frequently reviews books for the Sunday Gazette-Mail.


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