This review has been published in Buzz magazine.
A Watery Grave is the first book in Joan Druett’s Wiki Coffin series of books. On the cover they appear to be a seafaring adventure along the lines of Master and Commander or the Hornblower series, but once you are into the story the reader discovers that it is another old-fashioned murder mystery like hundreds of others before.
However, Wiki Coffin is a very unusual sleuth. He is half Maori and half American, raised within his Maori tribe until aged 12 when he was taken to America by his Salem shipcaptain father. Sounds unusual enough but the historical period for the series is 1838. Suddenly Wiki becomes unique. He has the Polynesian origins, American education and then left home, to his step-mother’s relief, and worked on whaling ships across the world, learning practical seamanship within the civilian context. During a short visit to America, Wiki’s school friend George convinces him to sail with the United States Exploring Expedition sailing off to chart the shores of Oregon, map the islands of the Pacific, and officially (as in military) discover Antarctica.
The morning the fleet is due to sail, Wiki is on the bank of the Elizabeth River in Virginia seeking satisfaction in a duel. His opponent never shows, but instead a small rowboat carrying the body of a young woman floats by. As Wiki moves into the water to retrieve the boat, a couple of shots are fired, attracting unwanted attention. Minutes after Wiki pulls the boat to the riverbank, he is arrested for the murder.
Not a bad start. But through the book Druett changes Wiki from the chief suspect to the chief investigator. With intelligence and logic, Wiki looks at all the different possibilities, asking searching questions and eventually coming to accurate conclusions.
But the mystery is only half the story. The reader is also treated to a wonderful seafaring adventure. There are storms, ships lost at sea, tyrannical captains, cannon practice, sharks and all the trappings of a sea voyage in the 1800s. Druett is totally comfortable in the jargon of the sailing vessel, but some of her readers may need a dictionary or even a wallchart of a three-masted schooner that names the masts and sails. I managed because I have recently read the complete Master and Commander series where O’Brien patiently explains everything to us novices. Druett just assumes that if you are interested, you will look it up.
My only complaint is to the publisher. The cover shows a blonde European staring into space. Wiki is half Maori and repeated reference is made to his long black hair. How hard could it be to find a photographic model that suits?
Thank goodness the Buzz editor has also given me book two in this series. I was lucky enough to finish one and move immediately into the next. I’ll tell you about it next issue.