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Book Review

This review was created by the editorial staff at Thriving Family magazine

This Christian mystery/crime novel by Tim Shoemaker is the third in the Code of Silence trilogy and is published by Zonderkidz, a division of Zondervan.

Below the Surface is written for kids ages 8 to 13. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

It's the summer before their freshman year of high school, and Cooper and his three friends, Gordy, Lunk and Hiro (short for Hiroko), are on vacation with their families at Lake Geneva.

While spending the afternoon on their boat, The Getaway, Gordy convinces Cooper to play a prank on a neighboring boat, the Krypto Night. Hiro doesn't think it's a good idea, but she acts as lookout for Cooper and Gordy when they hide rotten fish on board. As Cooper swims back to The Getaway, he's inexplicably afraid of the water. Gordy helps Cooper make it back to the boat without drowning. Cooper refuses to talk about the incident.

While the three friends are waiting for Lunk to arrive, they see a camera flash aboard the Krypto Night, hear a female scream and a splash, followed by the boat driving erratically. Hiro thinks the girl who screamed was thrown from the boat and that the driver hit her, but it's too dark to tell for certain. Fearing the worst, Hiro calls 9-1-1.

Before the police arrive, the Krypto Night's captain, Tommy Kryptoski, steers his boat near The Getaway. He explains that after he and his girlfriend had a fight, she jumped overboard and swam to shore. Hiro and Cooper meet the police ashore and tell them what happened.

Lunk arrives, and as Hiro and Cooper fill him in on what happened, a girl in soaking wet clothes walks up the beach. She claims to be Lynn, Tommy's girlfriend, and corroborates his story, saying she jumped out of the boat and swam to shore. Cooper and Lunk think the issue is settled, but Hiro senses something is wrong. Hiro watches Tommy talk to a mysterious man in a black truck before returning to his boat.

After the group goes to Scoops, the local ice cream shop, Hiro notices the same black truck from the beach. The driver enters Scoops, and Hiro has another uneasy feeling. Once they've finished their ice cream, Hiro returns to the hotel where their families are staying, and the boys ride their bikes back to the beach. On the way, the black truck speeds toward them, and its side view mirror hits Cooper in the shoulder. Cooper's shoulder is bruised, but his helmet saves him from further injury.

The morning after the incident, Tommy and Lynn are searching the beach. When they're gone, Hiro and the boys try to find whatever the couple was looking for. During the search, Lynn approaches Hiro and reveals that the camera is missing. She asks them to keep an eye out for it. In town, Hiro sees Officer Tarpy, the officer who responded to her call the night before, and tells him about the missing camera and her suspicion that Lynn wasn't the girl on the boat. He doesn't seem concerned.

Later at Scoops, Hiro asks the girl at the counter if she knows the man from the night before. She identifies him by his usual ice cream flavor, Fat Elvis, and says he's a creep who works for a nearby casino, cleaning up after the boss' son, Tommy. When Hiro discovers that a girl named Wendy is missing, she's convinced the missing camera will prove that Wendy was the girl on the boat.

While visiting a county fair with their families, Hiro spots Fat Elvis. As Hiro watches from the ride she and the boys are on, she gets the feeling that Fat Elvis is actually Joseph Stein, a man they caught stealing money from his business partner the previous year. The boys think Hiro is paranoid. They're convinced Stein is in hiding and couldn't possibly be Fat Elvis. Hiro can't shake the bad feeling and decides to call Detective Hammer, the detective who worked the Joseph Stein case. He promises to come to Lake Geneva and check things out.

The boys still don't believe Hiro, but they decide to stand behind her. They spend the next day looking for the camera. Cooper, who has tried to fight his fear of drowning, is looking in the water for the camera and has a panic attack just as Tommy approaches in the Krypto Night. Seeing his panic, Tommy taunts Cooper by asking him to check his propeller and rudder, which aren't working. To save face, Cooper agrees. Once Tommy is gone, Cooper reveals that the camera is stuck on the rudder, but he couldn't get it free. The group launches a plan to retrieve the camera. Cooper faces his fear of being underwater, and with Lunk's help, dislodges the camera. The camera gives the police proof that Tommy murdered Wendy.

That night, Hiro receives a text message from Cooper's phone, asking her to meet him. She discovers that Fat Elvis took Cooper's phone at the fair and used it to lure her. Hiro is right: Fat Elvis is Joseph Stein. He plans to kill her as revenge for exposing him as a criminal the year prior. Her friends realize what's happened. They call 9-1-1 before rushing to find her.

They find her just as Detective Hammer arrives and shoots Stein in the shoulder. Later, they discover that Stein was hired by Tommy's father as a henchman to cover up their crimes, including Wendy's murder. Stein and Tommy are brought to justice, and Gordy, Lunk, Cooper and Hiro enjoy the rest of their vacation in peace.

Christian Beliefs

Many of the characters pray to God. Gordy tells Hiro that she'll have to pray and ask God to expose Tommy as a murderer since they can't find proof. Hiro calls out to God when she's frightened on a carnival ride. Cooper also calls out God's name after he has a panic attack in the water. He asks for God's help and thanks God. Cooper asks Hiro to pray for him when he swims over to the Krypto Knight to retrieve the camera. Gordy also prays, though he doesn't seem to rely on his faith as strongly as his friends.

Hiro and Cooper are open about their Christian faith with Lunk, who isn't sure he believes in God at the beginning of the novel. After seeing Cooper survive an earlier incident when he almost drowned as well as the run-in with the black truck, Lunk concludes that God must be watching out for Cooper.

Hiro models humility when she asks Lunk to forgive her for unkindly calling his father a sociopath. Hiro doesn't believe in ghosts and uses the phrase “Lord willing.”

To help Cooper conquer his fear of the water, Cooper's father reminds him that God is always with him. When Cooper focuses on that fact and tells himself that God is loving, powerful, real and big enough to handle anything lurking in the water, he's able to swim to the Krypto Night and retrieve the camera.

Other Belief Systems

Gordy tells scary stories to frighten his friends. He talks about zombies, ghosts and Sasquatch. Cooper jokes about the full moon being the reason for all the bad things happening on their vacation.

Hiro has a very accurate intuition. The boys call it women's intuition, but they almost treat her instinct as if it comes from a higher power.

Authority Roles

Mr. MacKinnon, Cooper's father, is depicted as a wise and caring man. He knows that Lunk's father abandoned the family and takes Lunk under his wing. He spends time teaching Lunk how to captain The Getaway. When he realizes that Cooper has developed a fear of swimming underwater, he works with him to overcome the fear. He reminds Cooper that he's never alone — God is always with him.

Lunk describes his father as an abusive, lying, scheming cheat who drinks, beats his wife, steals her money and then leaves his family. Thinking about the last time his father hit his mom, Lunk recalls that he had finally grown large enough to do something about the abuse. In a rage, Lunk knocked his father to the floor and started hitting him. After Lunk won the fight, his father left for good, returning only sporadically to ask for money. Lunk reflects that the one thing his father taught him was how to fight. Because of this lesson, Lunk was able to fight his father and force him to leave. He believes that his father may be a sociopath.

Officer Tarpy and Detective Hammer are portrayed as trustworthy and honest men. They treat Hiro with respect and listen to her concerns even though she's young and no one else believes her.


The words jerk, idiot and h--- appear.

Hiro, Gordy and Cooper witness Wendy's murder. It's too dark for them to make out details, but they hear a woman scream and see Tommy driving his boat over the spot where she fell into the water. After the incident, the three friends can't stop thinking about the woman's body sinking to the bottom of the lake. They talk about Fat Elvis trying to cover up the murder by using a spear gun to drag the body to the middle of the lake or to shore where he would bury it.

Joseph Stein is a violent sociopath, and several short chapters are written in his voice. He tries to run down Cooper and the boys with his truck. He stalks Hiro to try to scare her. Stein also sets a casino on fire to keep the police busy while he attempts to kill Hiro. Armed with a gun, Stein chases Hiro through a dangerous concrete tunnel filled with water. He grabs Hiro's hair, knees her in the stomach and holds her underwater. She scratches at his eyes to free herself. Cooper shoots a flare gun at Stein. Stein is about to shoot his Saturday night special at Cooper and Hiro. Detective Hammer arrives and shoots Stein in the shoulder.

Lunk remembers the last time his father screamed at his mother and hit her, and how he knocked his father to the ground and started hitting him. Cooper has several panic attacks when he swims underwater and sees the darkness. He says he feels like he is going to die. Eventually, his father helps him understand that his fear is related to when Cooper was trapped in chains in a dark, slowly flooding basement and nearly died. That event occurs in the book Back Before Dark.

Stein unscrews a plug in The Getaway to let water into its cabin while the boys are inside it and locks the cabin's hatch so the boys will drown. The boys escape.



Discussion Topics

If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:

  • Why has Cooper developed a fear of swimming underwater where it's dark?
  • Who tries to help Cooper overcome his fear?
  • When does Cooper decide to stop burying his fear and face it?
  • What does Cooper focus on when he and Lunk swim under the boat to get the camera?
  • What fear would you like to face?
  • How can we help you do that?

  • Near the end of the book, Hiro has a sense of fear about going out in the storm to meet Cooper, but she ignores it.

  • What happens to her as a result?
  • How can fear protect you and be a warning about danger?
  • When has a sense of fear kept you from danger?

  • What did Hiro's father do for a living before he died?

  • How is Hiro like her father?
  • How many 14- or 15-year-old kids actually put themselves in the kind of danger that Hiro and her friends do and solve crimes?
  • Why don't the teens seek more help from their parents?
  • When have you or someone you know been in a dangerous situation?

  • Why does Hiro leave the condo alone at 10:30 p.m. to meet Cooper?

  • Why isn't that wise?
  • Why might Hiro's mother have a curfew for her daughter?
  • Why is it especially unsafe for her to be out alone at night?
  • What is your curfew?
  • How might your curfew be there to protect you?

  • At the fair, why doesn't Hiro want to go on any rides?

  • Why does she eventually give in?
  • What are some things you or someone you know have been pressured to do?
  • What are some healthy ways to react in that type of situation?

  • Why doesn't Lunk feel as if he fits in with his new friends?

  • Do you know of anyone in an abusive situation?
  • Why is it important to share that type of information with safe adults?
  • Whom do you know who might feel left out like Lunk did? How could you make a difference in that person's life?

Additional Comments/Notes

Gambling: Joseph Stein (Fat Elvis) has a gambling problem and must pay off his debts by working for Mr. Kryptoski.

This review is brought to you by Focus on the Family, a donor-based ministry. Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

You can request a review of a title you can't find at reviewrequests@family.org.

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