The Red Herring

Obsessed with sharks his entire life, marine biologist Simon Chase was thrilled when a giant 16-foot, one-ton great white was spotted off the coast of Connecticut.

The local residents, however, didn’t share Chase’s enthusiasm. “People loved to read about sharks, loved to see movies about sharks, loved to believe they understood sharks and wanted to protect them,” wrote Peter Benchley 20 years after the publication of Jaws, his now iconic shark novel. “But tell them there was a shark in the water anywhere within ten miles—especially a great white shark—and their love changed instantly to fear and loathing.”

If you’ve read a lot of shark novels (like I have), you already know that great whites were marvels of evolution. They’ve survived almost unchanged for millions of years and were the biggest carnivorous fish in the world. Simply put, they were efficient man-eating dinosaurs. It’s as if Mother Nature had created them and thought, “Well done.”

This time, Benchley’s great white shark was nothing but a red herring. The apex predator didn’t do much except swim in and out of the narrative. The author used it to misdirect the reader from the real monster lurking nearby.

The horror behind the titular White Shark actual began during WWII when a Nazi doctor named Ernst Kruger created the prototype for a new species of amphibious soldiers. It was the most revolutionary weapon not only of the Third Reich but of science. Like Victor Frankenstein, Kruger was a genius who usurped the power of God. 

Fifty years later, der weisse hai was still alive and terrorizing a small Connecticut beach community. How it got from a laboratory in Germany to the shores of New England was a big convoluted mess that redefined the word “happenstance.”

The book’s endgame was also a litany of unbelievable contrived plot twists. If I were an evil book reviewer (and who says I’m not?), I’d accuse Benchley of being a lazy writer. In addition, the novel was filled to the brim with a shitload of minor characters masquerading as main characters. I tell you, the whole thing was exhausting. 

Most disappointing of all was the Nazi aqua man himself. Benchley was doggedly vague about the monster because he wanted readers to think the great white shark was the villain. Not till the very end of novel does he reveal his abomination from the bottom of the sea. 

When the German slime beast finally revealed itself, the author’s descriptive language was a bit inconsistent. At first, the creature was gray with yellow hair and later he was as hairless as a Sphynx cat. 

Despite the specifics of what the sea beast looked like, all eyewitnesses agreed on one thing: the gill-man was as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger or André the Giant or Shaquille O’Neal or Big Bird. Take your pick. It doesn’t really matter in the end. 

[White Shark / By Peter Benchley / First Printing: January 1994 / ISBN: 9780312955731]