A Watery Grave

Written by Joan Druett
Review by Alice Logsdon

In August 1838, the US Exploring Expedition left Hampton, Virginia, to explore the South Seas. Lt. Charles Wilkes commanded six ships with a crew of 246, plus a contingent of scientists and artists. Joan Druett has set this tale aboard a fictional seventh ship, the Swallow, captained by George Rochester and carrying the expedition’s linguist, Wiki Coffin.

Wiki, half American and half Maori, almost misses the opportunity to sail with the Expedition after being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead of being jailed for a murder he didn’t commit, he impresses the chief investigator with his assessment of the few clues available. After being deputized, he is instructed to go back to his ship, watch the primary suspects, who also happen to be sailing with the Expedition, and report back if he finds any proof of guilt.

This novel has its attributes, among them being the vivid imagery used to convey life aboard ship. I don’t know a spar from a keel, so the technical descriptions of shipboard activity were Greek to me, but I’d bet that Druett has it all right. In juxtaposing the ships’ officers with the crew, she makes good use of the opportunity to compare the “civilized” with the “savage.” I can’t say that the identity of the killer is all that surprising; further, some plot developments are questionable. For example, while it’s possible that a sheriff at that time and place would be able to look past prejudice, release a dark-skinned suspect on lack of evidence, and then deputize him, I have my doubts. However, for those who like adventure mixed with light suspense, this will be a good choice. Plus, the ending leaves no doubt that there will be more Wiki Coffin mysteries to come.