Joan Druett

"Deadly Shoals"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew DEC 27, 2007)

"There was another grave danger lurking in the fog. Wiki's mind was moving fast, picturing the ships of the fleet slipping their cables and flying off on the breast of the storm to get an offing well away from the land -- while the invisible Osprey wallowed directly between them and the open sea...."

Deadly Shoals by Joan Druett

Gripping struggles upon stormy seas lace Deadly Shoals. During one, sailors grapple feverishly with flapping sails and unsecured lines in spuming ocean ready to wash them overboard in a trice. The gale accelerates the ship while the bowsprit plows into a cresting wave, and suddenly the first mate, shouting orders at the fore, is swept into the sea. Wiki, quick-thinking and the only man onboard already barefoot, dives in and struggles to the inert figure sinking rapidly into the depths....

Besides bracing shipboard action during a squall, one would expect a salty sea tale to include some cannon broadsides, and Deadly Shoals delivers, in proper time and fine form, on that as well, even though the reader may well wonder how such armed conflict might come about since America was not at war in 1839.

Indeed, Wiki is a versatile crewmember of one of the ships belonging to an American scientific expedition that set sail from Norfolk, Virginia. The little fleet that had the Pacific as its goal, moved down along the eastern coast of South America first (no Panama Canal yet). Deadly Shoals, the fourth "seafaring mystery" in Joan Druett's Wiki Coffin series, traces the course actually sailed by the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, commanded by Naval Lt. Charles Wilkes. However, Wilkes' real fleet sailed with six ships. Druett adds a seventh, the fictional Swallow, a brig on which Wiki (also fictional) is normally berthed.

The real six-ship expedition left Virginia with 346 men, and before it ended 28 men died and two ships were lost. There were numerous legal travails including courts martial and the death of one sailor in the Fiji islands that lead to massive reprisal against the natives. Lt. Wilkes became an increasingly overbearing, petty, arrogant tyrant, making the lives of the ships' crews a torment. Druett has chosen her source material brilliantly; she can mine tons more from documented history for future volumes.

As it happens, Deadly Shoals, is my first taste of this series. I come as a neophyte to the characters and the setting of the novel. In some respects, as I read I definitely felt at a bit of a disadvantage, plunging into an obviously continuing story. Whether or not Druett plans to rival Patrick O'Brian in his twenty-volume (plus one if the three chapters of 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey are counted) Aubrey/Maturin sea saga, she lays out a tantalizingly dangerous twist for Wiki in the final pages of Deadly Shoals that readers will be eager to follow into the next book.

But let's examine the plot of Deadly Shoals in more detail: In the opening chapter, Swallow is off the coast of Patagonia, "with the shoal-ridden estuary of the Rio Negro on the western horizon," temporarily detached from the rest of the expeditionary squadron. Abruptly a strange ship, New England whaler Trojan, comes alongside her and in short order Wiki, whose many talents include speaking a number of languages and being a deputized lawman, is ordered to accompany Captain Stackpole, master of said whaleship, to the mainland to find and apprehend a thief. Stackpole had handed over a thousand dollars to another American named Caleb Adams to act as agent to buy and outfit a schooner. Stackpole wanted the schooner to try his hand at sealing since the whale hunt hadn't been going his way. But both Adams and the schooner had vanished, and Stackpole wants satisfaction from some type of American authority, not the local governor. For a good portion of the book, Wiki remains landlocked, attempting to sort out Stackpole's grievance by talking to various persons in Spanish and other tongues. In the course of his investigations, Wiki undertakes a journey upriver to massive salt dunes, rides poncho-clad with gauchos, and gets caught in a refugee stream panicking over a French invasion. He also discovers two dead (murdered!) men, and a lot of questions, but no thousand dollars and no schooner. He returns to the now re-assembled expedition fleet, only to discover that his superiors want him to drop further inquiries about the murdered men, even though both are Americans. Wiki, independent-minded and self-possessed young man he is, disobeys that command and forges on. He also realizes also that he needs to completely reexamine his interpretation of the "facts" and the people involved if he is going to get to the bottom of a very interconnected and deceptive plot.

Deadly Shoals offers, in Wiki, a nimble, talented, and unusual character as the "detective/hero." William "Wiki" Coffin is an illegitimate half-Maori son of an American sea captain -- a father whom Wiki runs into quite a bit during this voyage. Readers pick up tidbits about Maori culture and language from New Zealander Druett. A look on the author's website reveals a handsome likeness of Wiki on the cover of the downunder edition of Deadly Shoals and the other series books. The American cover art isn't as up-close and personal, but the Wiki depiction isn't quite authentic to details in the novel because Wiki ignores the order to -- as a member of the expedition's scientific corps -- wear a U.S. Navy lieutenant's uniform, yet he is shown in one.

Druett's creative decision to place a half-caste among the educated in this expedition lends an exotic twist to the storytelling. She also puts a number of Polynesians in the enlisted crew with whom Wiki sometimes converses. This allows the author to explore some bigotry issues. However, the main focus isn't on treatment of the twenty-four-year-old Wiki or the South Seas crewmen, but on the mystery surrounding the murders and the missing money and vessel. This is wise. Too much emphasis on discrimination issues would be out of place since such considerations were not typically in play in 1839. Whether the actual expedition -- called Ex. Ex. for short --carried anything but whites in the crew is uncertain. Googling for expedition crew rosters yielded lists for the naval officers, the engravers and illustrators, and the scientific corps, but not regular crew. No noticeably non-American names were present. But then Wiki's official name, "William Coffin," wouldn't have hinted at his Maori genes anyway.

Deadly Shoals utilizes a plethora of nautical terms, and during the action scenes at sea, it might be advisable for non-sailors to have a seafaring lexicon such as Dean King's A Sea of Words at hand. I used mine to refresh my memory about which sails are positioned where. The sections of Deadly Shoals set at sea did outshine those on land. At times, the plot slogged along a bit too slowly while Wiki trekked about with Stackpole. Publishers Weekly said about an earlier book in this series that Druett succumbed to pedantry on occasion. One could suggest the same of Deadly Shoals and could suggest in tandem that the plot is too tightly and cleverly plotted, but by and large, the author succeeds in telling a story that winningly entertains, sustains suspense, and goads curiosity about the nonfiction. I'm looking forward to the next Wiki Coffin entry, and would like to catch up on the previous three.
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Wiki Coffin Mysteries:

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About the Author:

Joan DruettJoan Druett was born in Nelson, New Zealand. She grew up in Palmerston North and moved to Wellington, New Zealand's capital, when she was 16-years-old. She earned her BA in English literature at Victoria University of Wellington.

Druett did not produce her first full length book until she was forty-years-old. Prior to that, she did a lot of writing submitting stories to magazine, taught biology and English and raised two sons.

She was approached by a publisher to write Exotic Intruders, which won a couple of prizes, including the PEN Award for Best First Book of Prose. She went to America as Fulbright Scholar in 1986. Then, while looking for a travel story, she came upon a longlost grave of a whaling wife, which inspired several women of the seas books. This resulted in a return to America in 1992 as historian/writer for a museum exhibit at the Oysterponds Historical Society at Orient, Long Island.

With her seafaring artist husband, Ron, she returned to New Zealand in late 1996 to write Hen Frigates, which won more American awards. In 2000, she won her first New Zealand award, which resulted in her writing a true-life maritime mystery, In the Wake of Madness. In 2001 she was the John David Stout Fellow at the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies, Victoria University, and is still an associate.

In 2005, she was appointed a consultant for an ongoing NEH-funded project with the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society, "Children of Whaleships."

She lives in New Zealand.

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