Contracted to track down the man who stole a sealing schooner, instead Wiki Coffin finds a skull at the foot of a sacred Gualichu tree in the stark hinterland of the Rio Negro, and joins the Patagonian gauchos to solve a grotesque murder
Imagine a Maori detective with the physical attributes of a Hurricanes rugby player.
Then put him on an American exploring expedition in the 1830s.
Maritime historian Joan Druett did, and the result was Wiki Coffin, sleuth extraordinaire and translator on the United States Exploring Expedition, which set off in 1838 to chart and explore the Pacific. . . .
Thus runs the compelling start of an article about Wiki Coffin that appeared in New Zealand newspapers, following an enjoyable chat I had with Michael Griffin of the NZ Press Association, who was curious about Wiki's origins.
All Wellingtonians know about their famous rugby team, the Hurricanes. (See the quick link to their website in the righthand column.) What most of them don't know is that the Polynesians in the mystery stories . . . and maybe even Wiki himself . . . are modelled from Hurricanes players. But which ones? Thereby hangs another mystery! You can go onto the site, click on "The Team" and have a few guesses of your own, for fun. I don't promise to provide the answers!
Wiki was also inspired by a real, historical man. A "New Zealand chief" was on board the actual U.S. discovery fleet, and Captain Wilkes and others had rather a lot to say about him. His Maori name was "Tuatti" (perhaps Te Aute) and his sailor name was "Jack Sac." He had lived in the States for about ten years, and had joined the expedition in order to rejoin his family in Maketu, on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Te Aute, or "Jack Sac" appears as a major character in the fifth Wiki Coffin mystery novel, The Beckoning Ice. Well, I meant him to be a minor character, just a bit scary as a yet another threat to Wiki's survival, but to my surprise he took on life of his own, became compelling and funny, and his participation turned out to be crucial to the resolution of the plot. Read the book to find out what I mean.
Concerning "Jack Sac," one of the midshipmen, William Reynolds, wrote, "He is civilized in a manner, eats cooked meat, and has some idea of a God!" Fully tattooed on both face and body, he had been "exhibited" in the U.S., "and we often have him to dance and sing after the manner of his nation - 'tis as good as a play." All the midshipmen liked to "talk with him about his youthful days, his feelings on leaving home, his impressions on landing in America and the change which came over him when he was able to think and reason for himself." Without intending to be condescending or racist, this ingenuous young man decided that it was possible to learn something of human nature even from "a Savage, from a cannibal New Zealander; only think!"
Well, when I first read this, I couldn't help but wonder what Jack Sac himself thought of his American shipmates and their strange expedition, and so the character of Wiki began to take form in my mind. If he was half-Yankee, educated, and fluent in English as well as Pacific Islands languages, he could have a great deal to say -- but he wouldn't have the chance to say it unless he had a very good friend on board. And so the character of Captain George Rochester came into being, too.
The experiences of the brave "kanakas" -- Pacific Islanders -- and adventurous Maori who so willingly signed up on Yankee ships just for the hell of it has always intrigued me, and the series has given me a wonderful opportunity to explore the topic, as well as express the dash and romance of life under sail at a time when the Pacific Ocean was both intriguingly exotic and largely uncharted. But most of all it has given me the chance to write marvellously swashbuckling seafaring yarns, so as well as having a rich fund of lore to draw upon, I am having a terrific time.
And as well as that, there are the Wiki Coffin short stories, which take place at an earlier period in his life, during his late teenaged years. The first, "Brethren of the Sea," starts when Wiki starts his whaling career, on the Nantucketer Paths of Glory. Naturally, he solves a murder ... or two. Not only did the editor of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine love the story, but it was shortlisted for a Derringer award. And since then the magazine has kept on turning them out (see the list on the lefthand side), and through these stories, Wiki has developed as a character, too. Readers say it shows in the later novels, especially the latest one.
And I most surely hope you enjoy the voyaging as much as I do. Kia kaha!