Friday, February 20, 2015

Review: THE BECKONING ICE by Joan Druett

THE BECKONING ICE by Joan Druett (Old Salt Press, 2013)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

Synopsis: It is February 1839, and the ships of the United States Exploring Expedition are thrashing about dreaded Cape Horn, on their way to a rendezvous at Orange Harbor, Tierra del Fuego, on a crazy mission to be the first to find Antarctica. A sealing schooner hails the brig Swallow with a strange tale of a murdered corpse on an iceberg--surely a case for Wiki Coffin, half-Maori, half-Yankee "linguister," who is the representative of American law and order with the fleet.

But circumstances are against him. As Wiki has been banished from the brig Swallow, which is commanded by his friend, George Rochester, to the sloop Peacock,where he is forced to battle racism in the wardroom, and vengeful sealers on the decks, the puzzle is surely too much even for this experienced sleuth. Then Wiki is tested even further when he is faced by a brutal murder on board. To solve this double mystery, Wiki is forced to make a voyage to the utmost fringes of the beckoning ice, on a mission more dangerous than any he has faced in the past.

Review: Having never heard of the Wiki Coffin series before, THE BECKONING ICE was an opportunity to read some historical crime fiction from New Zealand that doesn't come along all that often. Part Maori, part American, Wiki is on board the United States Exploring Expedition when a very odd murder is reported.

Reading this book it becomes very obvious that this is an area of history and naval events that the author knows a lot about. The book starts out in a very strong way with the sighting of a possible murder victim, and events that transpire once it is reported to the Expeditionary fleet. After such a strong commencement, the story does get a little less focused, with Wiki transferred between ships in the Fleet, and eventually, another suspect death and that investigation.

Along the way there is much racism encountered, an arrangement undertaken with another Maori crew member, and encounters with a group of sealers bent on discovery of a secret they believe Wiki's investigation has unearthed.

Reader's of historical crime fiction will be used to being launched into times or places that are nothing like our present. THE BECKONING ICE, and the whole of this series it seems, takes that even further in employing such an unusual setting, time, point in history and central character. It is a lot to take in first time out, and as a result you might find yourself involved in some fairly heavy lifting getting everything lined up and understood. There are also some points where, it seems by design, plot and advancement are subsumed by character and sense of place / time. Which will make this a perfect read for some, and not for others.

Having come to the series fresh at book 5, the detail did slightly overwhelm and the various character back-stories, and interplay and politics get very complicated. It seemed to be suggesting that it could be a series that's better to start at the beginning.

Having said that, it's certainly a most unusual scenario, and definitely should be on the radar of fans of historical crime fiction.


Karen Chisholm is one of the most respected crime fiction reviewers in Australia. An absolute stalwart of antipodean crime fiction, Karen created and has been running her Aust Crime Fiction website since 2006, highlighting a plethora of authors and titles from this part of the world, to the wider world online. It is a terrific resource - please check it out. 

Karen also reviews for other outlets, such as the Newtown Review of Books, and since 2014 has been a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel - the New Zealand crime writing award. Her reviews of New Zealand crime novels will now be shared here on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction


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