"The technical side of things, how to build a watertight wooden ship, how to make rope and the almost sensual way to carve a figurehead, the most important part of a sailing vessel, is spot on"
There’s a body on the beach, and it looks like they drowned. This is not unusual in Aberdeen in the 1840s and initially, it seemed that it was just another accident. The local law will round up the usual suspects and life will continue.
The deceased, Jimmie Crombie, was a sharp businessman; disliked by everyone, from his wife Jessie to William Anderson, for whom he was building a new ship. He owed everyone money, including John Grant, the man carving the figurehead for Anderson’s ship. John is drawn into investigating when he sees suspicious marks on the body which make it look like more than a drunken accident. And he has his own reason to find out, an unsolved crime that he suffered from still haunts him.
The problem he has is: where to start? It seems that everyone has a motive and he must be careful, the people he works with and the shipyard can be dangerous places; accuse the wrong man and he could end up in the same situation. If that wasn’t enough, the figurehead he is carving has a deception of its own, the widower John, develops what could become more than a friendship with Anderson’s daughter, Helen. If society would ever allow such a thing.
Bill Kirton has written more than an amateur detective story set in the past, he has captured the very essence of a city in flux, its ever-changing cast brought in and out with the tide. The relationship between the classes and their lives is shown in absorbing detail as John investigates. You can see the teeming streets, the dark alleys and bars. The smell of the fish-market on the breeze. The drunkenness of Saturday night and its aftermath. You feel the gulf between Anderson in his mansion and Jessie, Jimmie Crombie’s widow, in her hovel. The growing friendship across class between John and Helen is tenderly drawn and adds another layer to the story.
The solving of the crime is well paced, the suspicion shifting from one person to another as more is discovered about the lives of the characters, revealing just how little John knows of the people he spends his life with. There is no final dramatic exposition, none is needed. Instead we have a logical conclusion, perfectly described.
And all this is intertwined with the story of building a ship and carving its figurehead. The technical side of things, how to build a watertight wooden ship, how to make rope and the almost sensual way to carve a figurehead, the most important part of a sailing vessel, is spot on. This realism helps to construct the world of the tale.
When I had finished, I wanted to know what happens to the characters next; to me this is the mark of a master story-teller.
© Richard Dee
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