Friday, February 22, 2013

Review of The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home (2011, Sandstone Press)

Cal McGill is a part-time PhD oceanography student charting how the currents move free-floating objects, supplementing his studies by running Flotsam and Jetsam Investigations, which seeks to track and source particular items such as nets and oil spills for a variety of agencies.  He has a particular interest in charting the movement of bodies, seeking the location where his grandfather may have been washed ashore on the Norwegian coast in the Second World War.  He’s also a part-time eco-warrior, highlighting the issue of climate change by planting a particular, symbolic plant in the gardens of senior Scottish government figures.  Only on his latest escapade he’s been caught on camera.  DI David Ryan, a misogynist and careerist cop, would like to throw the book at Cal, but nobody else wants to press charges, least of all the politicians, wary of how it will play out in the media.  Nonetheless Cal and photographs of his work and his grandfather appear in several newspapers.  The story is seen by an Indian girl on the run from her pimps, who recognises a photo of her friend who’d disappeared three years earlier pinned to his map, and also prompts Cal’s ex-wife to make contact to tell him she’s making a documentary about the remote island where his grandfather used to inhabit and that she’s met an old woman who’d like to talk to him.  The first sees him drawn into the dark world of sex trafficking, the latter prompts him to confront his grandfather’s past and the rumours surrounding his death.  Meanwhile, Ryan and his put-upon, overweight colleague, Helen Jamieson, has been assigned to investigate the appearance of three feet that have been washed up onto different beaches.  Ryan sees it as a path to promotion, but refuses to use Cal’s expertise and wants Jamieson to do all the work whilst he builds his media profile.  Jamieson is fed-up of being bullied by her obnoxious boss and wants to claim the credit of solving the case, and has no issues with using Cal on the quiet.  Drawn into these various strands, the sea detective will either drown or steer a path through stormy currents. 

The Sea Detective is a hugely enjoyable read, told in an engaging and compelling voice.  An awful lot happens in its 280 pages, with its three main intersecting plot lines, but at no point does the story feel overcomplicated or underdeveloped or overly contrived.  Packing so much in, in terms of historical, social and scientific contextualisation and the back stories of the various characters, whilst keep the story front and centre without the text becoming bloated or preachy is a remarkable feat.  The characterisation is excellent, especially the lead characters of Cal McGill, DC Helen Jamieson, Basanti, and DI Ryan, who all are complex and three-dimensional (I especially liked Jamieson as the intelligent but overweight cop who craves recognition and acceptance, but is misjudged and mocked by her colleagues).  Douglas-Home is particularly good at framing and playing out a scene and the interactions between characters.  There is a strong sense of place throughout, especially with respect to rural, coastal Scotland.  The plotting is, in my view is exceptional, creating a story that hooks the story in and incessantly tugs them along on a gripping, emotional journey.  Overall, an excellent first novel that I’d thoroughly recommend.  I’ll definitely be reading the next in the series.


Bernadette said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this one Rob, I thought it fantastic too - I think you can see his journalism skills in the excellent plotting

Anonymous said...

So glad to read your review. I purchased it based on the great comments at RTR and seeing another post like this validates my decision to buy it -- and loan it out all over the place.