Harry Morgan is literally trying to stay afloat in the depression-era 1930s. His boat is his only source of income - whether through legal party-fishing or illegal smuggling of rum, people or anything else that will pay. It's a sometimes violent business that keeps Harry on the edge of disaster.
The story opens with Harry's refusal to carry Cuban revolutionaries to the United States. As the revolutionaries leave the cantina in which they have been negotiating, they are gunned down.
Harry's next venture is a marlin-fishing expedition with a wealthy businessman. The man refuses to follow instructions and loses a huge fish, along with Harry's tackle and line. He blames Harry for his failure to catch any marlin and runs off without paying some $500 in charter fees, plus the damage to nearly $300 worth of equipment. In order to find the money to return to Key West, where he lives, Harry agrees to ferry illegal Chinese workers to Florida. Upon receiving payment, he murders the contractor, then sets the workers ashore inside Cuba.
The story picks up the following winter. Harry is wounded during a run-in with Cuban government officials while he's carrying a boatload of illegal rum from Cuba. As a result, he loses an arm. Worse still, American Customs Service confiscates his boat.
Harry's friends are working in depression-relief projects or low-paying menial work. With a wife and two kids to support, Harry feels he cannot take this kind of work. Finally, in desperation, Harry agrees steal back his boat and ferry revolutionaries now in the United States to Cuba.
The review of this Book prepared by David Gordon