The tanker Petros Jupiter lies grounded on the rocks, spewing oil all over the Cornish coast. Infuriated by the environmental devastation, Karen Rodin takes a drastic suicidal action that has enormous consequences for her husband, Trevor. On discovering that the ships' engineer has been involved in several other tanker "accidents", Trevor Rodin immediately suspects sabotage, and sets out to find the man. His quest for personal revenge coincides with the offer of a job on another tanker, as well as his engagement by Lloyds to uncover the truth behind several other mysterious tanker incidents. Are all these events connected, and who or what is behind them? Was the grounding of the Petros Jupiter deliberate, and are further environmental disasters planned? And what is the purpose of the motley crew of thugs, crooks, and ex-environmentalists on board a hijacked tanker in the Middle East?
It's no secret that in his later years, Hammond Innes became heavily interested in ecological and environmental themes, and brought this out in spades in his books. Tree felling, African wildlife poaching, and exploitation of pristine wilderness are just some of the ideas he explored, and from its title it is obvious that 'The Black Tide' is his "oil pollution" novel. It's a worthy theme, but I feel here that Innes' concern with making his "point" comes at the expense of telling a well-constructed and believable story. While not a bad book, 'The Black Tide' has a set of rather hazily-drawn characters, and a plot that leaves alot of loose ends poorly explained.
'The Black Tide' is a book that stands or falls on how well you can accept the characters' motivations, and I'm not sure how easily you can do this. The concepts of "Using The Devil's Tools To Fight The Devil" and "Destroying The Few To Save The Many" are pretty questionable motivations for a start, yet this is what drives virtually everything, from Karen's reckless, tragic action at the beginning of the book, to Rodin's mission of revenge, to the disaster at the end. There's the sense of all these characters blundering into quite extreme courses of action in a fit of anger, without stopping and thinking rationally about what they are doing. As an example, if you're intent on dishing out some private justice against a man, it's probably not a good idea to go around telling everyone you want to kill him (including the man's daughter!). And then you wonder why people accuse you when he mysteriously turns up dead next to you!
In addition, there are a number of important plot points that aren't fully resolved, particularly involving the true purpose of the hijacked tankers. It's implied that the dramatic actions at the end of the book were a spur of the moment decision by Peter Hals, but was this Hals' motive all along? If not, what was? Was some form of environmental blackmail and vandalism the intention right from the start? Or something even more sinister? There's alot of speculation but no clear explanation at all.
There are the usual strong characters, and the standard Hammond Innes device of making the narrator an "everyman" who is drawn into action through things outside his control. And there are some powerful individual scenes, particularly at the beginning and end of the book. But from a pure storytelling point of view I have to say this isn't Innes' best work.