The year is 1838, and after more than ten years in the planning, the famous United States Exploring Expedition is set to launch into uncharted waters from the coast of Virginia. A convoy of seven ships filled with astronomers, mapmakers, naturalists, and the sailors charged with getting them around the world, the "Ex. Ex." is finally underway, with much fanfare.
Aboard the convoy as ship's linguist is Wiki Coffin. Half New Zealand Maori and half American, Wiki speaks numerous languages and is expected to help the crew navigate the Pacific islands that are his native heritage. But just before departure Wiki, subject to the unfortunate bigotry of the time, is arrested for a vicious murder he didn't commit.
The convoy sails off, but just before the ships are out of reach Wiki is exonerated, set free to catch up with his ship and sail on. The catch: the local sheriff is convinced that the real murderer is aboard one of the seven ships of the expedition, and Wiki is deputized to identify the killer and bring him to justice. Full of the evocative maritime detail and atmosphere that have won her numerous awards for her nonfiction, Joan Druett's A Watery Grave is the mystery debut of a masterful maritime writer.
About the Author
Joan Druett, an award-winning nautical nonfiction writer, is also the author of In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon. She lives in New Zealand.
Read an Excerpt
Virginia, August 1838
The man who was about to be wrongfully arrested waited in the black shadow of a tree by the Elizabeth River. His name was Wiki Coffin, and he had been waiting without moving for more than two hours. Thinking that it was surely time the appointment was kept, he restlessly touched the pistols in his belt. Stilling again, he listened intently for the sounds of people approaching — the rhythmic swish of oars or the rattle of harness and beat of hooves — but heard nothing.
When Wiki had taken up his station the moon had been high, glinting on the leaves above his head, its face occasionally obscured by high clouds. The soft breeze was redolent with the smells of cypress and swamp, warm growth, and salt sea; and the night was filled with the quiet rush and lap of the river, along with the almost inaudible chuckle of one of the creeks that fed the great stream somewhere beyond an upriver headland. Closer, crabs scuttled and shellfish plopped. Too, Wiki had heard small creatures prowl the thicket behind him, owls calling in distant trees, and faint ghostly cries from the Great Dismal Swamp, Whip poor Willy, whip poor Willy whip ... Now the graying sky rang with the harsh call of hunting ospreys, while gulls swooped and squalled over the harbor. The moon and stars had faded.
Across the river the far shore was becoming distinct. The waters were a clear brown like strong tea, streaked with veins of mud, shimmering as the sun nudged the low horizon, waves rising and falling so that the seven ships of the United States Exploring Expedition rocked gently at their anchors. The flagship Vincennes, her massive hull painted black save for the white streak regularly interrupted with square black gun ports, was lit up by the first long rays; and the intricate rigging of the second-in-command, the sloop of war Peacock, became silhouetted against the sky. Then the chunky hull of the expedition's storeship Relief came into view. The smaller ships of the discovery fleet — Porpoise, Flying Fish, Sea Gull, and Swallow — were veiled in the mists that rose off the water, but Wiki could hear faint piping and drums as the watches were summoned to swab decks.
He thought that soon there would be antlike figures in the yards and masts, reminding all of Norfolk and Portsmouth that after years of dissention and controversy the great United States Exploring Expedition was truly bound for exotic shores and distant seas, and heard the distant sound of a trumpet, echoed by trilling calls from all the ships. It was the order to get ready to make sail and trip the anchor, and he realized with a lurch in his chest that the fleet was readying for departure. Boats were putting out hastily from shore, heading for the ships. He thought urgently that he should be on board the Swallow; soon he would be missed. Wiki shifted from one foot to the other, a knot in his gut, on the verge of abandoning his vigil.
With a queer mixture of foreboding and relief, he saw a small boat heading his way. Unexpectedly, however, it was coming from an upriver direction, not from across the harbor, so that it was only about forty or fifty feet away when he first saw it. It was a curiously derelict craft, too, but he stepped out of the shelter of the tree, raising his palm in a signal. Then, from the corner of his eye, Wiki glimpsed movement — not on the river, but in the thicket on the low slope behind him. He whirled around, heard the utterly unexpected crack of a rifle, and felt the wind of a bullet as it whined close by.
Ambush! Wiki dived full length, rolling in the mud to keep a low profile as he discarded his pistols, spinning them into the cover of a bush. The rifle cracked a second time as he hit the water, and he dug his head into the first wave and struck out strongly for the boat.
When he lifted his face to suck in a breath the gun was silent. He had no way of telling how many shots had been fired in the meantime. There was no movement in the thicket, but the feeling of being watched persisted. Then he looked for the boat. It was just a few yards away, revolving with the current. There was no sign of any oarsmen. To all appearances, it was empty. Perplexed, Wiki paused, kicking slowly to keep still in the water.
Something white lifted up from inside the boat. It was just a flicker, but looked like a woman's arm gesturing for help. A superstitious shiver lifted the wet hairs on his neck. A man in a Norfolk tavern had told him the story of the Lady of the Lake — the ghost of an Indian girl who had died in the Great Dismal Swamp on the way to a tryst with her lover. The sight of her canoe always came as a dire warning, the man had said. However, Wiki ducked his head down and swam for the boat because he reckoned he had no choice.
Another dozen strokes and he was there. Wiki gripped the rough wooden gunwale on the side away from the beach, shaking his head vigorously to flap his long hair away from his face and blinking water from his eyes. Then he froze, his grasp convulsive. There was a dead woman lying in the bottom of the boat.
She was laid out formally, as if in a coffin, stretched out on her back beneath the single thwart with her gown spread neatly all the way to the toes of her satin slippers, her hands clasped together on her breast. A paddle lay tidily beside her, its blade still wet. Wiki knew something of boat burials. In the remote Pacific he had visited atolls where it was the custom for a funeral canoe to be pushed out to sea with the corpse inside. Too, he had read about Viking funerals, where important cadavers were placed in longships and buried or burned or set adrift; but this was definitely his first personal experience of any such thing. He was also certain boat burial was not the custom in Virginia.
The dead woman appeared to be quite young, not much older than himself. Her muslin gown was white, and he saw that a fold of this, catching the breeze, had tricked him into thinking it was a beckoning arm. Realizing that she had not been dead many hours, he shivered again. The yellow curls that escaped from her lace cap still held some of the shine of life. Then, as the boat bobbed with his weight on the gunwale, the woman's head fell to one side, and her mouth gaped. She had been beautiful, but now she looked grotesque.
He heard shouts and the thump of hooves and looked up to see that people had burst out onto the riverbank, followed by a big man on a horse, who held himself as if he was someone official. The low sun caught the glitter of the badge he wore on his coat. The law, Wiki realized, or maybe even the sheriff, which meant there was a good chance it was safe to return to the beach. Perhaps they had arrested the rifleman. He slid hand over hand along the side until he came to the trailing painter, and then, drawing the rope over his shoulder, he gripped the cut end between his teeth and began to swim, lugging the boat with its macabre burden behind him.
He swam slowly because the going was much harder than he had expected. The boat was getting heavier by the moment, and when he turned his head he saw it was lower in the water, sinking visibly. Then he saw that water was pouring in from two holes bored into the hull just below the waterline. The loose fold of the woman's white gown was now too sodden to lift with the breeze. Another ten minutes and the body would have disappeared forever. The boat would have sunk, the current dragging it along the river bottom toward the waiting sea, and the thwart would have prevented the decomposing corpse from floating free.
Wiki swam hard to get the boat to the beach before it foundered, thinking it was going to be a close call. As it was, if people had not dashed into the water to help, he would have been forced to give up. When they finally got hold of the boat, Wiki crawled up onto the grass with what felt like the last of his strength. He sat slumped, waiting for his breathing to settle. The sound of the hull grating on mud and sand and people shouting was muted in his thundering ears. Then he heard the rattle of leathers as the horseman dismounted. Wiki slowly clambered to his feet.
However, the officer was paying him no attention. Instead, he was hunkered down by the beached boat, so Wiki took the opportunity to look about for his pistols but without success. Then, when the man finally stood up and turned to face him, Wiki saw he had the two heavy weapons held by the barrels in one massive hand.
The officer was a middle-aged, burly fellow, his face mottled red with good living and creased with years of sun. His coat and riding breeches were well-tailored and fashionable, so that despite the five-pointed nickel star on his lapel he looked a lot more like a prosperous landholder than an agent of law, order, and the collection of taxes. For a moment there was silence while this individual looked from one muddy pistol to the other, balancing them on his broad palms; then he lifted his head to stare at Wiki from under the brim of his wide planter's hat, saying, "These folks tell me they heard you firing these here pistols. What did you think you were shooting at, son?"
Wiki paused, disliking the word "son"— though, as he admitted privately, he had been called a great deal worse of late. Then he agreed. "They're right. Those pistols are mine. But I wasn't firing them. I was the one being shot at."
"Wa'al, is that so?" said the officer, sounding as if he did not believe a word of it. "And jes' who was this feller you reckon was taking potshots at your carcass, huh?"
"I haven't a notion."
"And you can't think of a reason?"
"No, I can't. He jumped out of the bush and fired without warning."
"And your name?"
"William Coffin Jr. I'm with the exploring expedition." Even as he spoke, Wiki could hear distant piping and the shouts of officers echoing across the water as the preparations to sail became more urgent.
The officer's thick eyebrows shot up. "You're a navy lad?"
"I'm a civilian — with the brig Swallow."
"Dod dog it, he ain't no civilian!" a voice hollered from the midst of the crowd. "He's a seaman jes' like meself — and his name ain't William Coffin, neither."
Everyone turned to gape at a scruffy old salt with an unshaven face and a dirty bandanna tied about his head. Wiki did not recognize the fellow at all, but it was all too obvious that the speaker remembered him. "Don't you be fooled by them blue eyes, Sheriff," this sailor declared with a smirk. "He's a Kanaka — a native from one of them savage islands in the Pacific. I sailed wiv 'im onct and not for long, but I know it for a fact. His Kanaka name be Wiki Kehua, which folks say means 'Willy-the-Ghost.' I reckon he's a runaway, sir!"
"Kanaka?" echoed the sheriff, pronouncing it "kernacker" in his long southern drawl. Turning back, he tipped up his hat with the barrel of one of the pistols to study Wiki at leisure, all the way from his long black hair to his flat broad feet planted strongly in the mud.
Wiki withstood the scrutiny in silence, knowing from experience that it was a bad idea to point out that though he was half New Zealand Maori, since the age of twelve he had been raised as an American and was probably better educated than any of these pakeha who were gawking at him now. It would not help, either, to inform them that though he was the direct descendant of famous warriors and powerful chiefs, he was also the son of a Salem sea captain — a man who had christened him "William Coffin" after himself. And it was certainly risky to mention that his Maori nickname, "kehua" — which did indeed mean "ghost" — was a mocking play on the name "Coffin," plus his chameleon-like ability to talk and behave like a true-blue American one moment and a beach-bred native of the Pacific the next. The joke would be quite beyond them, he was certain, the pakeha understanding of the Polynesian sense of humor being so unreliable; and he certainly did not feel like laughing himself. Wiki was overwhelmingly conscious of the sounds echoing across the river from the fleet — the rattle of chains and the increasingly urgent shouting. Seagulls whirled and screamed above the sails that were unfurling in jerky succession.
The sheriff said meditatively, "Kernacker, huh? Up to this minute, I thought you were an Indian. How long you been here, son?"
"In Norfolk? A week."
"On this riverbank, I mean."
Wiki shrugged. "A couple of hours or more, judging by the stars. I don't have any kind of timepiece."
"You were here during nighttime, huh? You got your pass to show me?"
"Your pass. All darkies got to carry a pass after curfew."
Wiki stiffened with rage. Then he reined in his temper. There was a corpse in that derelict boat, and he'd already been accused of firing the shots that had drawn this crowd. If it turned out this woman had been done to death, he would be the obvious scapegoat — and this was territory where lynch law once reigned. He thought of a gravestone he'd seen under a tree in a field the other day that read:JEB JOHNSON HANGED BY MISTAKE.
He said with forced calmness, schooling himself not to look at the ships making sail on the far side of the harbor, "I do not need a pass, and I knew nothing about a curfew. I was simply standing under that tree there minding my own business when I saw the boat come drifting downriver — from beyond that headland. I stepped out to see better, and I glimpsed a man behind me — he had a rifle, lifted it, fired. Once, twice, maybe more times, I don't know how many."
"How far off was he?"
"Not far. Back there." Wiki pointed at the thicket, thinking the marksman must have made a very quick escape since none of this mob had spied him.
"Yet he didn't manage to hit you, even though you was so close?" This time the tone was openly derisive.
Wiki was beginning to feel desperate. The Vincennes had now set her square sails, the broad canvas sheets luminous in the early sunlight. He tore his gaze away and said, "I shucked my pistols because of the weight and dived for the water. I was moving fast."
"But by your own accounting, he took you by surprise, and he had at least two chances to shoot you dead. And, what's more, you can't think of any reason he would want to do that. You're certain sure he was firing at you and not at somethin' else?"
"Aye," said Wiki. Then he paused, his mind suddenly filled with an altered picture of what had happened. He remembered the sounds of the first two shots, the double crack, the almost inaudible whine of the bullets — but suddenly he recollected, too, faint thunks in the distance as bullets hit something wooden.
The officer was watching him closely. Then he said, "So how come he hit that there boat instead of you, huh?"
Wiki frowned, remembering the two holes that had leaked so fast once the water reached them. It was certainly possible they were shot holes. Had the rifleman been firing at the boat? It had been higher in the water then, presenting a good target. He wondered with a grimace where the bullets had finished up. They were lodged in the corpse, he supposed.
The sheriff snapped, "I reckon those shots were fired in the wild hope of sinking the boat. What d'you think of that theory, huh?"
Wiki was silent a moment, thinking about it, and then said, "It's possible."
"So how long have you known the victim?"
Wiki said, aghast, "She's a total stranger to me!"
"You don't know who she is?"
"Of course I don't!"
The crowd was growing as more people streamed down through the trees. "Mrs. Tristram T. Stanton, she," an ancient beldame volunteered. "Richest woman in the whole of ole Virginny, married to the son of old man Stanton hisself. Not a happy situation. Threatened to do away wiv herself often. Looks like she done it. Poison, I 'spect," she added, with an air of omnipotence.
"You think she committed suicide?" Wiki turned to stare at the corpse, which somehow looked more lifeless. The head was awry, the jaw sagging open. The muslin dress was sodden and sullied. The yellow hair looked as dead as wet hay. In many parts of the Pacific this would be considered a time of great danger, when the potentially malevolent spirit was loosed. The Polynesian side of Wiki's nature craved some kind of ritual to send the hungry ghost on its proper path to the realm of darkness — te po, the place of departed spirits. The pakeha part of his mind dismissed the idea, but the hairs on his forearms kept on rising.
Excerpted from "A Watery Grave"
Copyright © 2004 Joan Druett.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wiki Coffin, a part-Maori native who immigrated to the United States in his preteen years, is accused of murder shortly before he is to depart as linguister on a Naval voyage. He is deputized to find the true killer who is likely aboard one of the ships in the voyage. The plot was fairly predictable as far as the mystery is concerned. Although the book is very readable, there are parts of it where the plot seems to bog down. There are a few scenes which don't really seem to add that much to the plot and a few which seem rather "fantastic" that such a thing would occur with a Naval voyage. The book was based on a real voyage although the author took quite a few liberties with it as she described in the author's note at the book's beginning. I think my favorite parts of the book are those which describe elements of Wiki's Maori heritage. This book was selected for me by my "Secret Santa" for SantaThing 2009.
Wilki Coffin (a half New Zealand Maori Indian) is accused of murder just before leaving with the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838. (a real fleet whose artifacts were the basis for the Smithsonian Museam). He is exonerated and deputized by the sheriff to find the murder who is believed to be with the fleet.This is a good story for any who like historical, age of sail and/or mysteries stories. The author gives enough nautical background to satisfy any nautical fan but not so much to overwhelm the novice
An easy to read tale of murder on land and intrigue and adventure at sea this novel set in early 19th Century America is well written.
Protagonist: Wiki CoffinSetting: aboard various ships of the US Exploring Expedition, 1838Series: #1First Line: The man who was about to be wrongfully arrested waited in the black shadow of a tree by the Elizabeth River.I have long been a fan of Joan Druett. Three of her books are in my library: She Captains, Hen Frigates and In the Wake of Madness. When I wish to read about the sea, Druett is the first author who comes to mind. So when I discovered that she'd begun writing a mystery series using the US Exploring Expedition as a backdrop, I was thrilled. Nathaniel Philbrick's book about the expedition was one of my top reads of the year a couple of years ago, and I couldn't wait to read Druett's book. It wasn't a disappointment.Wiki Coffin, the half-Maori son of a New England sea captain, has been hired as the "linguister" of the expedition. He almost misses the adventure, being wrongfully accused of the murder of Mrs. Tristan Stanton in Virginia. He clears himself so easily of the charges that he impresses the local sheriff, who deputizes Wiki to continue searching for the murderer as the expedition sets sail. We know who the killer has to be, all Wiki has to do is prove his guilt.What follows is a mystery with tight plotting, good pacing, excellent characterizations, and a true feel of the sea during the age of sail. It is a mark of Druett's skill that her attention to detail never gets in the way of the story. I may feel as though I'm capable of firing off a cannon now, but I never lost track of where Wiki was in his investigation. If you like mysteries with a taste of salt water, you can't go wrong with Joan Druett's Wiki Coffin series.
There are two parts to this book: the mystery and the nauticalism. The mystery is unremarkable, with the solution broadly suggesting itself pretty early on. The nauticalism isn't exactly wrong (for the most part), but it doesn't ring true; rather, it came across as forced and unnatural. I began finding it tiresome pretty quickly (and I'm one who likes Kent's "Richard Bolitho," Forester's "Horatio Hornblower," and O'Brian's "Aubrey-Maturin" series). I won't be pursuing this series.
In this first book of the series, Wiki sets sail with the great US Exploring Expedition in August 1838, and immediately heads into trouble. Best by enemies, and under a cloud of suspicion himself, he must expose a vicious, opportunistic murderer
The first in a historical mystery series set during the US Exploration Expedition of the early 1800's. Wiki Coffin, half New Zealander half American, is hired to be a linguist. But the night before they sail, Wiki finds a boat with a dead body inside. The woman was murdered, and there is reason to believe that the killer is with the expedition, especially when another body turns up. The historic details slowed the book down at times, but on the whole I really enjoyed the story, the characters, and the trip back in time.
In 1838 Norfolk, someone takes a shot at half Maori William ¿Wiki¿ Coffin, Jr. before fleeing the area. Wiki next sees the corpse of a woman in his boat. The Sheriff arrests Wiki for murdering Mrs. Tristam Stanton, wife of the expedition¿s astronomer. However, not long afterward, the Sheriff frees the ¿darkie¿ though he has no papers. Instead he believes that the killer is on the ship the Ex. Ex. already sailing on an exploration expedition in the South Seas. Since Wiki is a linguist with the expedition, the Sheriff asks him to investigate the murder on board the vessel........................... As Wiki catches up to the ship, he also begins making inquiries. However, he finds the crew¿s bias towards his race and national origin makes it difficult to obtain answers as well as delineate who is simply a bigot from a killer. Still, Wiki persists even as the ship is wracked with blunders, confusion, and dangerous decisions that almost sinks the effort before reaching the destination let alone solve a homicide.......................... This is a terrific historical mystery with the emphasis on real events and relationships circa 1838. The story line contains a fabulous who-done-it, but many of the red herrings are caused by racism that makes an individual seem nasty enough to commit murder. Wiki is a wonderful protagonist who hopefully stars in future South Sea adventures, but the key to this superb tale is the insight into the seemingly doomed real United States South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838.................... Harriet Klausner