February, 1942: Singapore lies burning and shattered, defenceless before the conquering hordes of the Japanese Army, as the last boat slips out of the harbour into the South China Sea. On board are a desperate group of people, each with a secret to guard, each willing to kill to keep that secret safe.
Who or what is the dissolute Englishman, Farnholme? The elegant Dutch planter, Van Effen? The strangely beautiful Eurasian girl, Gudrun? The slave trader, Siran? The smiling and silent Nicholson who is never without his gun? Only one thing is certain: the rotting tramp steamer is a floating death trap, carrying a cargo of human TNT.
Dawn sees them far out to sea but with the first murderous dive bombers already aimed at their ship. Thus begins an ordeal few are to survive, a nightmare succession of disasters wrought by the hell-bent Japanese, the unrelenting tropical sun and by the survivors themselves, whose hatred and bitterness divides them one against the other.