Joan Druett’s The Beckoning Ice, the fifth in her series of Wiki Coffin nautical mysteries, begins in 1839, on the sealer Betsey of Stonington, homeward bound from “a short but very profitable season far south of Cape Horn.” The schooner is very nearly wrecked on a massive iceberg, which looms suddenly out of the fog. The terror of nearly hitting the ice island is only made worse by the corpse of a man, apparently bludgeoned to dead, frozen on a ledge on the face of the ice.
The Betsey later crosses the course of the small flotilla of ships, brigs and schooners of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, a joint naval and scientific venture sent to chart the Pacific to help promote American trade. When the sealers report the apparent murder, Wiki Coffin is called to investigate, which will not be immediately easy to do, as the expedition is bound for Orange harbor in Tierra del Fuego. Soon Wiki will also have to investigate the suspicious suicide of a young naval lieutenant as well as avoiding several attempts on his own life. While performing his other duties and coping with bigotry and misunderstanding in the small fleet, Wiki must untangle the skein of secrets and alliances that result in the death of the young officer while evading the determined killers that threaten his own survival.
I am of the opinion that a murder mystery is only as good as the detective created to solve it. Joan Druett has created a marvelous detective in Wiki Coffin. The son of a wealthy ship’s captain and a Maori women from the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, he serves as the expedition’s “linguister,” which is to say a translator and language specialist. He was also duly deputized by the sheriff of Portsmouth, Virginia as an agent of law for the expedition. He the classic man of several worlds, able to understand both cultures yet as an outsider often capable of seeing what others do not.
Druett’s choice of the U.S. Exploring Expedition is also inspired. The expedition was rife with conflicts between and amongst the naval officers and the “scientifics,” the civilian scientists brought along to make observations and to record expedition data. Jealousy, paranoia, ambition and the clash of egos provides the perfect backdrop for murder and intrigue. Druett based a number of her characters and some of the plot conflicts on the historical records and diaries kept during the expedition.
The Beckoning Ice is part nautical adventure, part murder mystery, and part thriller, as well as thoroughly researched historical fiction. A multi-award winning nautical historian and novelist, Joan Druett brings a historian’s eye for detail and a novelists imagination, sense of character, plot and pacing to the novel. The tension only keeps building and the actions never waivers. The Beckoning Ice is a marvelous read. Highly recommended.