For a whaling ship out of Hull, England, bad luck and evil men turn an 1859 expedition into a nightmare.
Henry Drax sets the tone in the opening pages, emerging from a harbor bordello, murdering a man for not buying him a drink, and killing a boy who might be leading him into an ambush. Drax is a harpooner among the 40-man crew of the Volunteer, a ship doomed before it sails. Capt. Brownlee has agreed with the owner to wreck the vessel for insurance when it reaches the North Water in Baffin Bay. Much of the action is seen through the eyes of ship’s surgeon Patrick Sumner, who has a laudanum habit and carries a dark secret from his service with the British military in India. He plays detective when a cabin boy is sodomized and later murdered, eventually discovering one of the victim’s teeth in Drax’s arm. The vicious Drax also murders Brownlee and two Eskimo hunters who help the crew when the ship is wrecked and the sailors camp on ice. Along with human menace and mayhem, McGuire (Incredible Bodies, 2007) serves up gruesome descriptions of the killing of a whale and a polar bear. A bear rips off a man’s arm. A man shelters from the cold in a freshly gutted polar bear. And for good measure, a man’s intestinal abscess is operated on with stomach-turning detail. McGuire delivers not only arresting depictions of bloody destruction, but moments of fine prose that recall Seamus Heaney’s harsh music, as when an iceberg is described as “an albinistic butte unmoored from the desert floor.”
For noirish thrills in an unusual setting, McGuire has the goods and the gore, but this book—graphic in its violence, language, and sexual references—is not for the squeamish.