Cruise ships may once have had the cheery ambience portrayed on "The Love Boat" or Kathie Lee Gifford commercials, but much of the public...

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Cruise ships may once have had the cheery ambience portrayed on “The Love Boat” or Kathie Lee Gifford commercials, but much of the public now knows that a tempestuous storm of cutthroat competition and fishy ethics lurks beneath.

The industry endured a wave of negative publicity in the 1990s, even as cruise bookings hit record highs. Incidents of illegal waste dumping, sexual assaults of passengers and virus outbreaks battered the image of the Miami-based cruise lines, which are virtually exempt from federal taxes and pay famously low wages to their rank-and-file workers.

Journalist Kristoffer Garin chronicles the sordid details in his first book, “Devils on the Deep Blue Sea: The Dreams, Schemes, and Showdowns That Built America’s Cruise-Ship Empires” (Viking, 366 pp., $24.95). But despite the topic’s inherent pop-culture appeal, the book is weighed down by its esoteric insider accounts of the industry’s historical beginnings and its recent mergers. Maritime buffs and Wall Street fanatics may soak it up, but the book does not hold much for general readers.

After a vivid opening chapter that magnificently captures the enormousness of modern cruise ships and their lavish passenger perks, “Devils” begins to read like a book-length MBA case study. It lacks the cinematic drama of the best behind-the-scenes business stories penned by masters of the genre, such as James Stewart or Kurt Eichenwald.

Garin, who interviewed scores of cruise officials and experts, deserves credit for assembling a thorough history of what is now a $13 billion industry controlled by three main players: Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line. It’s just that the book is a little too exhaustive at times, especially when recounting the contractual minutiae behind the industry’s initial public offerings and mammoth mergers.

Despite the sensational title, Garin depicts the industry’s executives not so much as devils but as hard-charging, big-thinking opportunists. Taking center stage are Ted and Micky Arison, the father-son tandem of Carnival, which overcame several early setbacks to emerge as the industry’s dominant force.

Those looking for new insights into Seattle’s cruise-ship scene will be largely disappointed. Garin devotes little attention to Alaskan cruise pioneer Holland America, focusing mainly on the late-1980s deal in which Carnival acquired the Seattle-based line. The book also does not examine the Norwegian Sky’s landmark arrival in Puget Sound in 2000, when NCL began running Alaskan cruises out of a new Seattle homeport, Bell Street Pier.

The author skillfully deconstructs how the industry manages to post blistering profits — more than $2 billion in 2003. While the world’s most powerful cruise lines are based in America and carry mostly American passengers, loopholes in international law allow them to register their ships with permissive foreign governments, rendering the cruise lines exempt from the United States’ taxes and labor laws. Ships often fly under the flags of Liberia and Panama, although Garin notes that “a shipowner’s presence in one of these countries usually amounts to nothing more than a post office box or at most a brass plate in a lawyer’s office.”

Garin also delves below the passenger decks to give an overview of unseen laborers’ rough working conditions. These workers, mostly from the developing world, can be fired on the spot for merely being present in a passenger area, and some work 12- to 14-hour days without a day off for months.

“Squeezing the most out of workers in return for the least possible pay is one of the keys to the industry’s profitability,” Garin writes. But he never really takes the reader inside the minds and lives of these workers to experience life as they see it. The book’s only extended profile of a typical worker is a Filipino job applicant who ultimately is offered a contract to be a garbage man.

The author certainly sympathizes with the workers’ plight: “Even factoring in all the economic promises for workers with little prospects back home, it’s hard not to feel something disheartening in the notion that the world’s extremes of poverty and entitlement are coming face to face with one another in this odd zone of international waters.”

More writing along these lines, instead of the painstaking details of backroom merger deals, could have given the book a more readable, human touch.

Former Seattle Times reporter Jake Batsell teaches journalism at the University of North Texas. He can be reached at jbatsell@hotmail.com.