Steel Fear

A Thriller

  • Publishers Weekly “Best Summer Reads 2021”
  • Publishers Weekly “Best Books of 2021”
  • Barry Awards nominee

“Sensationally good — an instant classic, maybe an instant legend.” — Lee Child

It was January 2009 when I first connected with former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb around a proposal to work on his memoir. In one of our earliest conversations, Brandon asked me, “Hey, would you ever be interested in writing a novel? A thriller about a serial killer on an aircraft carrier?”

This was about as far from what I was doing at the time as Pluto is from Earth. So naturally I said, “Hell, yeah!”

It took three years for the memoir. The Red Circle hit the New York Times bestseller list when it came out and we’ve since written five more books together. No, make that six — because here comes that novel: Steel Fear hits the bookshelves this July.

Must-read thriller of the summer.

The idea for this story was inspired by an actual serial-molester event that occurred during Brandon’s tour as a rescue swimming (his pre-BUD/S) days) aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the mid-1990s, when the US Navy had just integrated women on board. The identity of that serial molester was never discovered. At the time, Brandon thought, What if these were murders?

Twenty-five years later, we got to work answering that question.

Researching and writing Steel Fear took us two solid years. I researched the hell out of aircraft carriers. (I highly recommend Geoff Dyer’s magnificently entertaining book Another Great Day at Sea and Icon Productions’ 10-hour miniseries Carrier.) I spent a day on the actual USS Abraham Lincoln, where the story takes place. I consulted with a few dozen experts on everything from anesthesiology to electronics to psychosis. And spent roughly a billion hours talking and emailing with Brandon.

When it was finished, our agent sold it in a hot two-book deal to Bantam. (We’re already at work on the sequel.) And as I write this post, there’s a bidding war happening in Hollywood for the rights to a TV series based on the book.


Foreign Language Editions

UK edition

Steel Fear Reviews

“Sensationally good – an instant classic, maybe an instant legend. Steel Fear takes all the strengths of a traditional thriller and makes them as modern as tomorrow.” — Lee Child, #1 New York Times bestselling author

Steel Fear is deadly good, a five-star scorcher from first page to last. The enigmatic and mysterious Finn is the next big thriller superstar.” — Robert Crais, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“An absolutely amazing thriller! Steel Fear comes in hot and never slows down. Exciting, action-packed, and twisty from stem to stern. This will be one of the hottest books of the summer!” — Brad Thor, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“Bestsellers Webb and Mann effortlessly transition into fiction with this nail-biter … The authors effectively integrate former Navy SEAL Webb’s military experience into the plot, making every detail ring true. That more thrillers are to come from these authors will be welcome news to readers who appreciate carefully plotted and intelligent suspense.” — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[Webb and Mann] hit all the right notes in their fiction debut, which blends the high-tech trappings of a military thriller with the crushing claustrophobia of a locked-room mystery.… Like Lee Child in his Jack Reacher novels, the authors can do more than power a pulse-racing narrative.… For readers who can’t resist a bureaucracy-battling action hero, there’s a new kid on the block (or boat).” — Booklist (starred review)

“Tom Clancy meets Agatha Christie in this electrifying tale…The combo of a military thriller and a serial killer narrative is genius, and the story sings with compelling authenticity. Readers of either genre will find much to savor in this page-turning novel.” — Library Journal

“[A] highly original update on a classic mystery trope.” — Publishers Weekly “Summer Reads 2021”

“An edge-of-your seat thriller with an original and engaging premise. Like speeding down a slalom course, once you get going there’s no stopping. This one is not to be missed.” — Steve Berry, New York Times bestselling author

Steel Fear is a tour de force, and utterly unique. A crucible of character fueled by a breathtaking thriller onboard an aircraft carrier that authors Webb and Mann bring to life with a poetry of meticulous detail.” — Daniel Pyne, screenwriter (Pacific Heights, The Manchurian Candidate, Bosch) and author (Water Memory)

“Lovers of both serial killer thrillers and military novels will be turning pages late into the night, as former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb and award-winning author John David Mann draw us deeper and deeper into this unique, suspenseful and authentically detailed game of cat and mouse.” — Michael Ledwidge, coauthor of 14 bestselling James Patterson novels

Steel Fear is a riff on the oft-used locked room puzzle. But what a huge locked room! The authors are up to the task and what we get is a very exciting and well-thought-out mystery. A couple of chapters at the end preview the next book in what will become a series. Can’t wait to read it.” — George Easter, Deadly Pleasures

“Twisting, suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat stuff … a well-written character-driven thriller that’s hard to put down. Webb and Mann deliver a strong effort with their first foray into fiction.” — Steve Netter, The Best Thriller Books

“The team of Webb and Mann is a welcome addition to the world of military thrillers, and Steel Fear is an excellent beginning.” — Michael J.McCann, New York Journal of Books

“A propulsive read … Webb and Mann expertly weave a complex and twisted narrative that is thoroughly authentic and chilling.” — Lou Jacobs, Mystery & Suspense magazine

“It’s always nice to find books that would have an appeal to movie-goers as well. Steel Fear definitely meets that standard. Oh, wow! The book is hard to book down.” — The Pilot

“Utterly compelling—a pitch-perfect, totally immersive thriller!” — Philippa East, award-winning author of Little White Lies

Steel Fear twists and speeds through its murderous plot with all the intrigue and intensity you’d expect from a Navy SEAL.” — Carey D. Lohrenz, the US Navy’s first female F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot and bestselling author of Fearless Leadership

Excerpt from Steel Fear


Shivers rippled over Monica Halsey’s naked skin as she peered into the steel mirror and splashed water on her face. Monica needed to be on her game tonight. She was close to earning her helicopter aircraft commander qualification, and tonight’s hop was a critical step in that process.

Because Papa Doc was flying with her.

She shivered again. Lord, why did they keep the AC up so high in this place? She pulled on a red-and-black undershirt—squadron colors—then fished out a tan flight suit, stepped into the legs, pulled up the suit, and slipped her arms into the sleeves.

His name wasn’t really Papa Doc, of course, it was Nikos Papadakis, and he was a control freak and a bully. Which was unfortunate, because he was also her commanding officer.

Papa Doc didn’t like her. She didn’t know why. Some security issue, probably; his daddy hit him or the big kids teased him or Lord knew what, but whatever the reason, it was a problem, because he held the keys to the kingdom—the kingdom in this case being Monica’s HAC qual.

Which Papa Doc had the power to quash.

She zipped her flight suit up the front to mid-sternum, rolled up the sleeves to mid-forearm.

Focused on her HAC, and on what lay beyond that.

A tour at the Pentagon, some high-profile posting, maybe an admiral’s aide? Tough job to get, and well worth it. If she did an excellent job there (and she would) she’d have people in high places looking out for her. Proceed to O-5, commander, and then O-6: the promised land. As a captain all sorts of posts would open up to her. Command of a ship. A cruiser. Even a carrier. Why not? And after captain came admiral. There’d been plenty of female admirals in the navy by now, even one full-ranked female four-star. The admiral of their own strike group was a woman. Not impossible at all.

Eyes on the prize.

The most important event shaping Monica’s life occurred ten years before she was born. In 1983 a thirty-two-year-old astronaut named Sally Ride flew the space shuttle Challenger and became the first American woman in space. On a third-grade school trip to the Houston Space Center Monica learned all about Sally Ride, learned that girls could actually become astronauts, and at the age of eight she fell in love. From that day on she wanted to fly more than anything in the world.

She bent down, slipped on her brown oxfords, and began lacing them tight.

In junior high she learned about Kara Hultgreen, the first female navy combat aviator, and her ambition shifted from astronaut to fighter pilot. She also learned that the USS Abraham Lincoln became the first Pacific Fleet carrier to integrate female aviators into its crew in 1993, the year Monica was born. It was on the Lincoln’s flight deck that Hultgreen flew her F-14 Tomcat.

Monica looked again at her reflection in the polished steel. “And here we are,” she whispered.

The USS Abraham freaking Lincoln.

She glanced around the dimly lit stateroom. Anne, one of her roommates, lay back on her rack, headphones on, murmuring incomprehensible phrases. Anne was sucking another foreign language (Mandarin, this time) into her voracious brain. Kris was on flight duty, gunning her F/A-18 somewhere up there through the Mesopotamian murk. The fourth rack, the one above Anne’s, was empty now. Monica forced herself not to look at it. The sight still put a knot in her stomach.

She reached for her toothbrush and squeezed on a pearl of toothpaste.

She’d learned a few more things in junior high, too. She learned about something called the “Tailhook scandal”: eighty-three navy women assaulted or sexually harassed. (That one happened two years before she was born.) That in 1994 Kara Hultgreen also became the first navy female aviator to die, right off the Lincoln’s flight deck—and that the crash that killed her was blamed on “improprieties” in qualifying her for flight status, “given her gender.”

For Flying While Female, in other words.

And Sally Ride? In a press conference just before that historic first flight in ’83, reporters asked her if space flight would “affect her reproductive organs” and whether she cried when things went wrong on the job.

“Shit fire and save the matches,” was Gram’s comment when Monica told her about it.

Monica was fifteen when she read about that humiliating press conference, and that was the day she formulated the guiding philosophy she’d held to ever since.

Never back down.

She looked in the mirror, gave her hair a few quick brush strokes, and snapped everything into place with a hair tie.

Ready for battle.


She opened the stateroom door, ducked her head, and began threading her way through the labyrinth. The nighttime safety lights provided her just enough illumination to see her way, their faint red glow giving the painted steel passageways an even more claustrophobic feel than usual. A lattice of wires, exposed pipes, and conduit brushed by overhead, like strands of web in a giant spider’s lair.

Eerie how quiet it got in here at night.

If you put all the ship’s passageways end to end, Monica’d heard, they would stretch out more than twenty miles. She’d asked her crew chief once just how big a carrier was. He told her about two brothers he knew who’d deployed at the same time on the same ship. From the day they left port to the day they returned seven months later the two never once bumped into each other. “That’s how big,” he said.

More than three thousand ship’s crew, plus nearly three thousand more with the air wing on board: some six thousand souls packed into this steel honeycomb. Like a small city folded in on itself. She’d heard of crew members getting lost even after weeks on board.

Monica never lost her way, not once.

Though she did crack her head a lot those first few weeks.

As she ducked through another doorway Monica thought again—for the thousandth time—of the inconvenience her height saddled her with here on the Lincoln. It was like living in a hobbit shire, only this particular hobbit shire was interlaced with a thousand narrow, nearly vertical steel staircases—“ladders,” in Navyspeak, never “stairs”—and punctuated by compact, capsule-shaped doorways with openings raised a few inches off the deck, so you had to remember to high-step through. Look down to make sure you cleared the edge and SLAM! Another whack to the head.

She ducked again, then on through a few more doors, down two steep, narrow ladders, and into her squadron’s ready room for a cup of hot Black Falcon coffee. Best coffee on the ship.

Quick op brief, then into the riggers loft, where she and the other crew donned their inflatable vests—“float coats”—and white flight helmets.

Moments later she was out in the labyrinth again with Papa Doc and two other crew members. Up another steep ladder and through a heavy hatch to the outside—where they all paused, momentarily immobilized by the blast of saturated heat.

Even at night the Persian Gulf was sweltering.

The four stood for a moment on the steel catwalk, eyes adjusting to the darkness as their bodies adapted to the heat. Looking down between her feet into the darkness, Monica could hear the ocean rushing by five stories below. Sailors who jumped from here with suicide on their minds might hope to drown, but only those few sorry souls who survived the fall got their wish.

She followed the others up the five steel steps and out onto the Lincoln’s massive flight deck, where every day was the Fourth of July.

WHAM! She was expecting it, but still the sound made her jump. A hundred yards from where Monica stood one of the flight deck’s steam catapults slammed against its stock, sending a fighter jet screaming off the bow end of the deck and into the air with a whoosh and disappearing into the dark.

CRASH! A second jet pounded into the deck’s stern to her right, its tailhook snagging one of the four arresting wires strung across the deck like booby traps. The cable shrieked as it stretched out into an elongated V, slowing the jet from 150 mph to zero in a two-count to stop it from careening off the deck’s angled landing strip.

Goggled and green-jerseyed handlers rushed forward to chock and chain the beast. Monica knew them all by their gait and gestures, had each one’s physical signature memorized. Her crew’s lives depended on these guys.

WHAM! Another cat shot, and whoosh! another jet disappeared into the dark.

CRASH! Another 25-ton beast pounded into the deck.


Her big brother had told her that the contrast between below decks and above was like night and day. That didn’t even come close. Life below was like living in a steel ant colony. Up here, everything was a mass of exploding chaos—yellow-jerseyed “shooters” signaling jet launches with their elaborate ballet; white-shirted “paddles” feeding the incoming pilots chunks of complex data with a wave of their glowing light sticks; green-jerseyed Martians swarming everywhere, checking and double-checking every facet of the machinery before takeoff. The roar of jet blast as the next pilot rammed the throttle forward, sending a blaze of blistering exhaust back into concrete-and-steel blast deflectors raised on their servo motors just in time to catch the inferno. The air boss up in the tower, all-seeing, his amplified voice booming above the din, directing everything like a benevolent Eye of Sauron.

And that smell! That heady mix of diesel fumes, jet fuel, and salt air. Every time Monica stepped off the catwalk and out onto the deck it hit her again, like echoes of a first high school kiss. She couldn’t get enough of it. Wished she could bottle it.

Launching and landing these jets was the most dangerous job in the world—and it was up to Monica to provide the safety net. The Lincoln carried forty-eight fighter jets and just six helicopters, but the helos were always, always, the first to lift off and last to land in any launch cycle, circling the ship’s starboard side in three-hour shifts so there would always be at least one helo in the air with a rescue swimmer on board, suited up and ready to plunge into the drink in the event a plane went down.

Every helo squadron had its own motto. “One Team, One Scream.” “Train to Fight, Fight to Win.” “Our Sting Is Death.” All of which sounded to Monica more like they belonged to jet fighters. Not the Black Falcons, though. The day she’d been assigned to the Falcons and learned what their motto was, she’d felt immediately at home.

“That Others May Live.”

Their helo was coming in now, winding up its final loop, another already in the air to take its place. As it settled onto the port edge of the deck in front of them, Monica thought again how much the Knighthawk resembled a praying mantis with its big cockpit-window eyes.

In the seconds before takeoff, she always said a silent prayer herself.

She’d be damned if anyone else on this deployment lost their lives. Not on her watch.

[For more, go to “View/Download Sample Chapter]

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