First published back in February of 1974, ex-Washington Post reporter, Newsweek editor and White House speechwriter - Peter Benchley saw his debut novel ‘Jaws’ receive instant success; sitting smugly on the bestseller list for a good 44 weeks. The following year Benchley co-wrote the screenplay adaptation alongside Carl Gottlieb (along with the uncredited Howard Sackler and John Limius) which was later made into the Steven Spielberg hit film of the same title.
On a quite summer’s night, a heavily intoxicated young woman decides to embark on a little late night skinny-dipping in the waters of Amity in Long Island. Whilst swimming alone in the silent moonlit waters, she is savagely attacked and killed by a large Great White shark. The following morning, the woman’s remains are washed up on the popular shores of Amity. Police Chief Martin Brody is convinced that the woman was attacked by a large shark that had wandered into their tourism reliant waters. Brody orders the beaches to be closed until further notice. However, more concerned with the town’s economy (as well as a debt with the Mafia), the medical examiner and the town’s Mayor - Larry Vaughan - mark the death down as a mere ‘boating accident’ so that the beaches can be opened up again to the hordes of tourists. With the 4th of July weekend looming, the mayor insists that the beaches must remain open for this popular and financially lucrative weekend.
However, the mayor’s hopeful prayers go unanswered when a elderly man and a young boy become further victims of this marauding shark. The boy’s grief stricken mother subsequently offers up a hefty reward to anyone who can catch the killer shark. The resulting mass of amateur fishermen, each with a hope of catching the shark, erupt into sheer pandemonium. Brody quickly calls in an ichthyologist by the name of Matthew Hooper, who after carefully examining the remains of the shark’s first victim, declares that this was definitely not caused by a freak boat accident, but was instead, the result of an attack from a large shark.
Meanwhile, away from the prevailing matters of the shark attacks, Hooper begins an adulterous relationship with Brody’s bored housewife Ellen (a former ‘summer person’), who craves the attention that has slipped away from her over the years.
In the meantime, several reward seekers have managed to catch a wandering tiger shark, which is instantly dubbed 'the killer shark'. However, Chief Brody and local officer Hendricks go to investigate the death of a local fisherman by the name of Ben Gardener, and in doing so, find a great white’s shark tooth embedded in the dead fisheman’s hull. The local newspapers have a field day with the news, unfairly declaring Brody as the responsible party for putting the beach-goers lives at risk.
With the tourism season now reaching its peak, more holiday makers are no doubt going to fall victim to this savage underwater beast. Along with the help of Hooper and the local shark hunter Quint, Brody takes to the waters to catch and kill this giant shark before it can claim any more lives. But the 20ft beast that awaits them is more deadly than any of them would ever have dreamed. The last of the shark’s victims have not yet been taken...
Benchley begins the novel with an impactful attack that instantly sets the mood for the tale. From here on the tourism-friendly Amity is expertly described, creating a thoroughly believable and realistic setting for the ensuing storyline.
The following shark attacks that cause so much panic amongst the holiday-makers and local community are subtly matched with the resulting human conflict and persecution that takes a predominant place within the early chapters of the novel.
Once the attacks are finally accepted and the killer shark fully established as the threat; Benchley begins upon an awe-inspiring deep-sea hunt for the shark. The suspense and underlying atmosphere of danger for Brody and the others is beautifully developed. At this stage the reader can’t help but become fully submerged within the hunt and its resulting tragedies; until the final confrontation between man and shark is played out.
The characters throughout the novel are given somewhat of a mismatched degree of development. Brody, who is predominately the novel’s lead character, is well portrayed, with thoroughly believable characteristics associated with the characterisation. Brody’s early hardships and misrepresentation push the reader to feel closer to the character’s altogether decent and likeable personality.
Quint on the other hand is less developed, but instead is purposeful given a simpler or callous personality cleverly mirroring his traits with those of the shark they are hunting. This effective strategy in giving Quint such a singly focussed attitude in life, cleverly creates an intriguing character to drive the dramatic hunt.
The last half of the novel is smothered in an atmosphere of isolation and utter terror for those on board the Orca. The resulting tension is incredible, maintaining a pure edge-of-the-seat read.
Although often deemed as somewhat anti-climactic after the build-up in events, the novel’s ending remains very poignant with its atmospheric finale instantly leaping from one state of adrenaline-filled events to a quietly sombre conclusion.
Although I can understand where many readers would feel that Spielberg’s ending is superior, by the sheer virtue of its dramatic and heart-racing grande finale, I can’t help but think that Benchley’s original ending has its very own equally impressive merits.
Peter Benchley’s classic novel ‘Jaws’ spawned a total of two subsequent sequels (both of which written by Hank Searls).
The novel runs for a total of 336 pages.
© DLS Reviews