Reviewed by Shane Donald
In the first book in the Wiki Coffin adventure series, Wiki embarks as linguister 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.
Known for her work as a writer of maritime history, A Watery Grave marks Joan Druett’s debut as a mystery novelist. Set in 1838, the story is takes place during the period the US Exploring Expedition set sail for the South Pacific and Antarctica and features Wiki Coffin, the expedition’s ‘linguister’ (language expert) investigating the murder of a young woman who has been killed just before the expedition is set to depart.
This novel is the first in a series which now numbers five books and involves a great deal of exposition about the characters and the reasons for the existence of the expedition. This does not detract from the story and offers a fascinating glimpse into the period in which the novel is set and the oceangoing exploration that was a feature of the time. Druett’s love of maritime history is clear to see in the depth of detail she provides about sailing ships. However, she has a light hand in informing the reader about her area of expertise and focuses on crafting an interesting murder mystery with an engaging and unique protagonist.
The novel opens with Wiki in the forest at night, waiting for a man who has insulted him. A duel is meant to follow. His opponent never arrives but as he waits, a row boat floats by on the river, containing the body of a murdered woman. Shots are fired from the forest and Wiki ends up in the river, pulling the boat to shore. He is arrested for murder but soon freed and given authority by the local sheriff to investigate the crime. The murdered woman is the wife of an expedition member and it is thought the real killer will be aboard one of the ships setting sail. Seeing that Wiki will be part of the expedition, he is given official sanction to find the killer.
I was interested to read in an interview that Joan Druett’s publishers encouraged her to try her hand at detective fiction. Her knowledge of nautical history is put to good use in crafting a good detective story. The result is an excellent introduction to a series based on a real-life expedition, populated by real and fictional characters. Joan Druett apparently had members of the Hurricane’s rugby team in mind when visualizing the character of Wiki Coffin. When I was reading I pictured Ma’a Nonu for some reason.
An important aspect of this novel is the attention given to social mores of the time. Wiki Coffin is the son of a Maori woman and an American father and has been educated in the United States since the age of 12. Throughout the novel his identity is questioned and held up to scrutiny by those he encounters. The issue of race is never far from the interaction he has with the majority of characters as he is often thought to be an American Indian. None of this overwhelms the story as a work of detective fiction. While plot is the driving force of most detective stories (you read to find out who the killer is), the attention to the inner world of Wiki Coffin makes this a detective novel that stays with you after reading and makes you ponder ideas about race and identity, as well as showing the reader a period in American history that they may not be familiar with. The later novels in the series continue the story of the expedition and involve Wiki Coffin investigating further murders. This novel is a great introduction the both the series and lead character and is well worth reading.
Shane Donald is a New Zealander living in Taiwan. An avid reader with 3,000 books in his home, he completed a dissertation on Ngaio Marsh for his MA degree, and also has a PhD in applied linguistics.