The U.S. Exploring Expedition’s Swallow, with sleuthing half-caste Polynesian linguist Wiki Coffin aboard, hits rough seas.
The 1838 voyage has two goals: to explore Antarctica and to determine if privateers have settled on tiny Shark Island, 100 miles off the coast of Brazil, to attack Navy ships. Wiki’s friend George Rochester commands the brig at sea but yields it to the more brutish Lt. Forsythe once land is sighted. Nearing Shark Island, they are hailed by Joel Hammond, first mate of the sealing schooner Annawan, who explains that they are cannibalizing their sister ship, the Hero, which buccaneers left to founder, in order to keep from sinking themselves. Once aboard the Annawan, all hands are dazzled by Captain Ezekiel Reed’s bride, Annabelle. Formerly engaged to Hammond, Annabelle spent the week before her wedding dallying with Wiki. By nightfall, Reed lies dead, skewered by Forsythe’s knife. But Wiki, believing him innocent, interrogates everyone from the boson to the cook, learns the difference between the galley and the pantry, and argues with Rochester over whether there are 16 or 17 hands aboard. Meanwhile, yarns are spun about hidden treasures, racism causes rifts among the crew, and Wiki and Annabelle, to Rochester’s dismay, pick up where they left off.
Basing her tale in part on the actual Exploring Expeditions’ voyages, Druett (A Watery Grave, 2004) describes with contagious conviction floggings, cramped quarters, pettifogging officers and rum rations. Her mystery, however, owes more to Golden Age timetables and to, yes, red herrings.