Monday, December 7, 2009

Crime Fiction Alphabet: J is for Joan Druett

Continuing the fun series started by fellow Anzac book blogger Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, where each week bloggers from around the world write about a notable crime fiction novel or author (first name or surname) starting with a particular letter of the alphabet, this week is the turn of "J".

Given that in my "A" post I said I would regularly sprinkle my contributions with a New Zealand-related post or two, this week I am including a post on Kiwi maritime historian and historic mystery writer Joan Druett, who from a crime/thriller perspective is most well-known for her ‘Wiki Coffin’ mysteries set on colonial-era sailing ships.

NB - this Crime Fiction Alphabet post is a lightly-edited reproduction of a profile post I did on Druett earlier this year.

Joan Druett (1939- )
Druett was born in my hometown of Nelson (a few decades before me), raised in Palmerston North, then moved to New Zealand’s capital Wellington as a teen. She had always wanted to write (including writing and illustrating her first book for her mother at the age of 4), and during this time she began writing science fiction stories for American magazines, along with stories for a Maori magazine under the pen name Jo Friday. Following high school she studied English literature at Victoria University, gaining a BA, before travelling extensively in her 20s to places such as Britain and the Middle East. She also lived in Canada for a period. After returning to New Zealand she worked as a Biology and English teacher, began raising a family, and continued to write.

Druett published her first book of any kind, EXOTIC INTRUDERS: THE INTRODUCTION OF PLANTS AND ANIMALS TO NEW ZEALAND in 1983. This non-fiction book looked at the introduction of flora and fauna to New Zealand by sailing ships, and was the start of a long association with maritime history for Druett. That first book won both the Hubert Church and PEN Awards for Best First Book in 1984.

Over the next quarter-century Druett’s love affair with the sea has continued and grown. During a vacation to Rarotonga in the South Pacific, working on a travel story, she became fascinated by the stories of the women who travelled at sea with their 19th Century whaling captain husbands. This led to further research and books, including a Fulbright Scholarship in 1986. Druett's non-fiction books over the years have been awarded a New York Public Library Book to Remember citation, a John Lyman Award for Best Book of American Maritime History and the Kendall Whaling Museum's L. Byrne Waterman Award.

After turning 40, Druett also began writing maritime-themed novels, which later lead to the Wiki Coffin series of mystery adventure novels, beginning with A WATERY GRAVE. In that first book, Wiki (who grew out of Druett's non-fiction research, including descriptions of a Maori sailor in a midshipman's journal from the first half of the nineteenth century) embarks as linguist for the US Exploring Expedition. Though beset by enemies, and under a cloud of suspicion himself, his mission is to expose a vicious, opportunistic murderer. The Mystery Reader gave Druett's mystery fiction debut a 5-star review, which you can read HERE.

You can also read the first chapter of A WATERY GRAVE here.

As a maritime historian, Druett found the real-life setting which she uses as a backdrop for her fictional mysteries, fascinating. She notes on her website that: "On Sunday, August 18, 1838, the six ships of the first, great, United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, commanded by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, crewed by 246 officers and men, and with seven scientists and two artists on board, set sail from the Hampton Roads, Virginia, headed for the far side of the world. Almost four years later, in June 1842, the remnants of the expedition straggled into New York. One vessel had been sent back in disgrace; one had been lost with all hands; another had been wrecked at the Columbia River; and a fourth had been sold into the opium-running trade on the coast of China...

...The strange voyage of the U.S. Exploring Expedition is the setting of the Wiki Coffin mystery series. While the novels are based on true events, and many of the participants in the stories are real, the mysteries and the people most intimately involved with them are figments of the author's overactive imagination—as is the brig Swallow, the seventh ship upon which most of the action takes place."

Following on from her critically-acclaimed first Wiki Coffin mystery, Druett has produced three more titles in the series; SHARK ISLAND, which involves murder and pirate-hunting off the coast of Brazil; RUN AFOUL, in which Wiki must clear his father's name on a murder charge; and DEADLY SHOALS, which involved Wiki joining the Patagonian gauchos to solve a grotesque murder.

Publisher's Weekly said of SHARK ISLAND: "Maritime historian Druett's rousing second historical ... offers rich nautical detail and an engaging and highly unusual protagonist ... A vulnerable captain, his beautiful young wife, a thuggish crew, a valuable and missing cargo and murder provide a stern test of Coffin's deductive abilities and his diplomatic skills. Druett should win plaudits from both mystery fans and aficionados of naval adventures."

Druett has also written some Wiki Coffin short stories, published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, for example "Murder in the Hold" in the Jul/Aug 2008 edition. Of that story, Druett told readers of her blog: "For those not in the know, the short stories featuring our young half-Maori, half-Yankee detective are set on a small and elderly Nantucket whaleship in the year 1831. In this episode, Wiki finds a clubbed body in the blubber hold, and is immediately accused of the crime -- "I hear that Maori warriors kill with clubs in New Zealand," says the first mate darkly. 'Nuff said ..."

Since first falling in love with maritime history, Druett has written 18 fiction and non-fiction books. You can read the first chapter of DEADLY SHOALS, Druett's most recent Wiki Coffin mystery novel, HERE.

And in good news for overseas readers, unlike many Kiwi crime/mystery writers, Joan Druett's Wiki Coffin novels are readily available in the USA, where they are published by Minotaur.

Have you read Joan Druett? What do you think of Wiki Coffin and his adventures? Do maritime mysteries appeal to you? What are your thoughts on mysteries in historical settings? All comments welcome.


  1. Craig - Thank you for highlighting the work of Joan Druett. It's so nice to learn a little about the authors of the books we read, and I confess that I don't know nearly enough about Kiwi crime fiction authors. I'm really learning a lot from your blog : ).

  2. Thanks for posting about one of my favorite authors. I first became acquainted with her through her maritime histories. Once I'd read Philbrick's Sea of Glory about the US Exploring Expedition, I did a little searching and discovered that Druett had begun a mystery series using that expedition as the foundation. Love at first sight!

  3. I wish you'd stop pointing me to new-to-me authors Craig. I like the sound of these. Thanks for participating in this week's Crime Fiction Alphabet.

  4. I love discovering new authors from your posts..

    Here is my Crime Fiction Alphabet: J post!