When Good Old Boat editors asked me to review this mystery novel, I happily agreed because mysteries are my favorite junk food. But the editor/proofreader in me is always on duty, and it took me five tries to get past the first 20 pages. The first few pages couldn’t keep my attention and, though the bad guys were recognizable as being really bad, it took quite a while for me to like the good guys well enough to care what the bad guys were doing to them.

It didn’t help that there were editing and proofing errors. Since I am a proofreader for Good Old Boat and others, this was like biting an M&M peanut and finding no peanut; the next few M&Ms are eaten with a measure of distrust. So it was as I turned each page of this book until I was about halfway through. Interrupted by a telephone call, I realized I couldn’t wait to get back to the warm Bahamian waters where Alexandra and Matthew Spencer were relishing their first cruise on their Pearson 323, Amani.

After a $10,000 down payment, they had turned Amani over to a charter company which took care of the yacht and paid off most of the boat mortgage through charters. Now that the boat was theirs free and clear, Alex and Matt anticipated many years of sailing, swimming, and exploring secluded beaches and each other. But they didn’t know about the cocaine the bad guys had hidden on Amani by mistake.

Once they discover the cocaine, they find that the Bahamas’ translucent, emerald-green waters and idyllic islands are also home to a drug cartel that carries on business without fear of the local police and to American agents who care more about the drug dealers than Americans tourists’ lives. Even the quaint native family that lives on a nearby boat knows better than to help the American whose wife has been kidnapped.

Matt, a former POW, realizes it’s up to him to find and rescue his wife. The bad guys (and the author does a great job of making them really bad) would prefer to retrieve their cocaine and kill them both. The ensuing battle of wits, weapons, and torture at times becomes creatively gruesome.

This was Sheryl Stafford’s first novel, which may account for the unevenness at the beginning of the book. By the end she had a firm grip on the story, and I didn’t want to let go.

A Deadly Exchange by Sheryl Jane Stafford (Writer’s Showcase/Universe, 2000; 353 pages)