Originally published on the The Old Salt Blog
What makes a mystery work for me is the detective - the knowledgeable outsider, living between two worlds, who can see things that others might miss. Whether it is Holmes, the consummate middle-class Englishman who is also a cocaine addicted eccentric, or Christie’s Hercule Poirot, the meticulous expert yet always the odd little foreigner; or Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, who as officers of the law represent the white establishment while also having to answer to their own Navajo communities - these detectives keep crossing back and forth between the world around them and their own private realms.
Joan Druett’s Wiki Coffin is just such a character. His father is a New England ship’s captain and his mother a Maori. In Druett’s Shark Island, he serves as a translator for Wilke’s US Exploratory Expedition of the late1830s. At 24, he is civilian on a navy ship, both admired for his seamanship and distrusted for being a Maori by the expedition officers. The junior officer with whom he bunks wonders if there is any truth to the rumor that Wiki comes from a tribe of cannibals. Wiki is a physically powerful and imposing figure, but most important of all, he is a keen observer of the strange and often conflicted world around him in the cramped quarters of the expedition brig Swallow.
Ms. Druett based Wiki Coffin, in part, on a historical figure of a “New Zealand chief” who sailed with the U.S. discovery fleet under Captain Wilkes. She also took her inspiration from the rugby players of her local Wellington Hurricanes. The combination of historical perspective and a straight-off-the-pitch energy, give Wiki a definite vitality on the printed page.
Ms. Druett has two challenges in Shark Island. She has to please the readers of nautical fiction and deliver a workable mystery in one seamless package. She succeeds at both. Ms. Druett is the author of eighteen books, including eleven prize winning works of maritime history. Her depth of knowledge gives her descriptions of the ships and action aboard them, both an authority and a certain economy. There is a temptation for writers in the genre, who have worked so hard to learn the necessary arcana of 18th century sailing to want to demonstrate their knowledge at length to the reader. Ms Druett is both sufficiently astute and skilled so as to keep her prose as clean and fast moving as Wiki’s brig Swallow in a fine topsail breeze.
The Swallow is dispatched to Shark Island to investigate reports of piracy. Instead of pirates, they find a wrecked sloop, a foundering schooner and a band of of American sealers led by a rather disagreeable captain with a beautiful young wife. When the captain is found stabbed to death and a Navy officer disappears, the mystery begins in earnest.
Notwithstanding the exotic setting and characters, the mystery is not so different from a classic murder in an English country house. The suspects are all aboard ship. The clues are all there. All Wiki has to do is to solve the puzzle and find the killer or killers. Well, that, and avoid being eaten by a shark, managing mutinous sealers, preventing the schooner from sinking beneath them, and avoiding being killed by the murderer or murderers still at large. And then there is the beautiful widow with whom Wiki has a past history….
Joan Druett’s Shark Island is a delight for lovers of both mystery and nautical fiction.
Description of: Shark Island
Author: Joan Druett