Saturday, July 22, 2006

Patrick O'Brian Light

I admit it: I probably expected too much from naval historian Joan Druett’s mystery A Watery Grave, which had the presumption to sail over the same territory as the justly revered – and recently dead – Patrick O’Brian. But both of us seem to have acquired wisdom in the interim, and I’m glad to report that her second book set on the infamous U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838 (which ended in disaster, only two of the original six ships returning to New York in 1842) is a much more interesting and considerably less irritating outing.

For one thing, her central character – Wiki Coffin, the son of a Polynesian mother and whose American father made sure he got a college education – doesn’t spend all his time swimming from vessel to vessel as he did in the first book. Wiki, officially the expedition’s linguist but also its chief crime solver, gets to exercise his brain more than his breaststroke in Shark Island, as he and his friend George Rochester, captain of the Swallow (a fictional seventh vessel which Druett added to the enterprise) investigate a sealing ship foundering off the coast of Brazil, abandoned by its crew. When the captain of the wrecked ship is murdered, the leading suspect turns out to be the ambitious and vindictive officer who made Rochester’s and Coffin’s lives such a misery in A Watery Grave. Druett replaces the flood of too-convenient coincidences which almost sank her first book with sharp psychological portraits and stirring, sea-swept descriptive passages that might remind you of – dare I say it? – Patrick O’Brian.

Shark Island isn't out in paperback yet (maybe it will be by Sept., when Druett's latest appears), but a lot of used copies are available on Amazon and ABE. And there's also a new 796-page novel called To the Edge of the World by Harry Thompson, which I'll be reviewing in the Chicago Tribune shortly. It's about real people -- Charles Darwin and Capt. Robert FitzRoy of the Beagle -- who might just remind you of another seafaring pair.