Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A WATERY GRAVE by Joan Druett

OK, yeah, I know, it's been a while. I had reviews to write for magazines (namely Scarlet and Van Helsing's Journal) and I still have a book to review for Amazon, plus I've been dealing with allergies (tree pollen is my bugaboo), coping with a bug, floored by Natasha Richardson's passing, driven nearly mad by work issues, coping with a temperamental car, etc. And I've been dealing with a dreadful crisis that struck on Easter weekend....I ran out of absinthe. And trying to find a source for it around here is a pain.

(Note on the Amazon kerfuffle...if you haven't heard about it, consider yourself lucky. Personally, I think it's a tempest in a teapot, and I find the "glitch" explanation totally plausible, considering some of the things I have to deal with at work. I have every intention of doing business with them in the future. I encourage cool heads and rational, skeptical thinking in situations like this, and refraining from witch-hunts and hopping on the outrage haywagon simply because it's fashionable.)

This book was a random selection at the library, but it turned out to be fun. Joan Druett is known as a nautical historian, and some refer to her as a "distaff Patrick O'Brien." This is the first in a mystery series (so far, four books), featuring linguist Wiki Coffin.

Now, what makes this series interesting is the milieu. Wiki is half-Caucasian, half-Maori, and has traveled over a lot of the 19th-century world. And in this novel, he's setting off with the (real-life) United States Exploring Expedition, which left Virginia in 1838 to explore and map as much as they could. In addition the usual naval crew, there were artists, naturalists, botanists, astronomers, taxidermists, a mineralogist, and a philologist. Six ships set out, but only one returned four years later (one was sent back because it was too slow, one shipwrecked, one was sold into the opium trade, and two vanished with all hands). The specimens collected on the expedition formed the backbone of the Smithsonian Institution (something near and dear to the hearts of us Washingtonians).

Anyway, Druett's series adds a seventh ship, and a few fictional characters, including linguist Wiki Coffin. As A WATERY GRAVE opens, Coffin is in Virginia, and witnesses a bizarre event as a boat is shot at on a river. Turns out the boat had a corpse in it, and Coffin is initially accused of the crime. He's cleared, but the local law enforcement is convinced the real criminal is part of the Coffin is deputized to find out who's responsible.

Now, I have to admit...the mystery's kinda creaky. I saw a lot of things coming that Wiki Coffin took for freakin' ever to figure out. And the final solution was not much of a surprise to me. But...the setting is just fascinating, and Druett's studies in nautical history make it all ring true. And all the scientific and cultural stuff just makes it all the more interesting for me. I just love the concept of the "citizen-scientist," research-minded regular joes who participate in various studies and track blooming flowers or bird appearances or meteors or whatever. (I had a great time a couple weekends ago at the Naval Observatory's open house here in DC, where I actually saw Saturn's rings through an amateur 'scope, and am seriously considering getting my own.) The historic setting, scientific discussions, and overall realism more than make up for the plot weaknesses.

So, if you enjoy a good historical and like to immerse yourself in a new setting, give Druett's work a try. I've already picked up a couple of her other books (thanks to ultra-cheap library book sales) and am looking forward to more adventures...

Coming up: Montague Summers, Sherlock Holmes, Poe, Poe, and more Poe!

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