A Watery Grave (Wiki Coffin Mysteries)

Joan Druett

Published by Minotaur Books, 2005
ISBN 10: 0312334427 / ISBN 13: 9780312334420
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The year is 1838, and after more than ten years in the planning, the famous United States Exploring Expedition is set to launch into uncharted waters from the coast of Virginia. A convoy of seven ships filled with astronomers, mapmakers, naturalists, and the sailors charged with getting them around the world, the "Ex. Ex." is finally underway, with much fanfare.

Aboard the convoy as ship's linguist is Wiki Coffin. Half New Zealand Maori and half American, Wiki speaks numerous languages and is expected to help the crew navigate the Pacific islands that are his native heritage. But just before departure Wiki, subject to the unfortunate bigotry of the time, is arrested for a vicious murder he didn't commit.

The convoy sails off, but just before the ships are out of reach Wiki is exonerated, set free to catch up with his ship and sail on. The catch: the local sheriff is convinced that the real murderer is aboard one of the seven ships of the expedition, and Wiki is deputized to identify the killer and bring him to justice. Full of the evocative maritime detail and atmosphere that have won her numerous awards for her nonfiction, Joan Druett's A Watery Grave is the mystery debut of a masterful maritime writer.

Review: Plotting a mystery series around the 1838-42 United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, a famous, though scandalized scientific voyage of half a dozen ships from Virginia to "the far side of the world," is such a brilliant idea, it's a wonder that nobody thought of it before. Fortunately, the task has now been taken up by New Zealand nautical historian Joan Druett.

In A Watery Grave, she introduces us to William "Wiki" Coffin Jr., the illegitimate, 24-year-old, half-Maori son of a New England sea captain, who has reluctantly enlisted with this expedition as a "linguister." Even before he boards the brig Swallow, "a weatherly little craft" and the fictional seventh vessel in this convoy, Wiki lands in trouble. While waiting on a moonlit Virginia riverbank to fight a duel, he's caught in a burst of rifle fire, aimed at a small boat in which is later found the corpse of Ophelia Stanton, the wealthy and supposedly suicidal daughter-in-law of a plantation owner. After clearing himself of complicity in the crime, Wiki, encouraged by a local sheriff, pursues better suspects. At the top of the list is Ophelia's husband, Tristan, an astronomer with the expedition, who was reportedly spotted in their house at the time of her slaying. However, others claim that Tristan was, instead, far away, entertaining a crowd of navy men. As the fleet departs for points east, this case remains unsolved, but Wiki keeps his eyes open, sure that the killer is along on the voyage--a fear soon supported by additional dubious deaths and disappearances.

Druett, best known now for her 2003 nonfiction book, In the Wake of Madness, shows in A Watery Grave both her knowledge of 19th-century sailing ships (look especially for her details about how to fire cannons) and her understanding of the closed, often jealous male societies they contained. Yet the history and real-life characters incorporated here (including mercurial fleet commander Charles Wilkes) never overshadow her wholly satisfying mystery plot. After seeing the eccentric but able Wiki Coffin face such adversities at sea, one can only wonder what more colorful finds and crimes await him as he makes landfall at Antarctica and the Pacific islands in future installments of this series. If Rafael Sabatini (Captain Blood) had experimented with crime fiction, A Watery Grave might well have been the result. --J. Kingston Pierce

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Title: A Watery Grave (Wiki Coffin Mysteries)
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: 2005
Binding: Paperback
Book Condition: Used: Good

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