THE BECKONING ICE


The Beckoning Ice is a mystery novel and, as you would expect from award winning historian Joan Druett, an extremely well written nautical novel as well. The plot of a great mystery novel must twist and turn and be totally unpredictable until the final pages and this is fully achieved in a hard to put down narrative.

Druett has created a great detective in Wiki Coffin with a complex family background which enables him to be the outsider when the plot demands it and it's good to see a new book in the series after a lengthy gap. He is half-Maori, half-Yankee "linguister," who also serves as the fleet representative of American law and order for the United States Exploring Expedition.

The story is set against a background of their work in the area of Cape Horn and when a sealing schooner hails the brig Swallow with a strange tale of a murdered corpse on an iceberg an investigation begins. The rivalries of the officers of the various ships lead to there being plenty of suspects for Wiki to investigate.

Combining historical and nautical accuracy with a fast paced mystery thriller has produced a marvelous book which is highly recommended. -- David Hayes, Historic Naval Fiction



The writing and publication of this, the fifth Wiki Coffin mystery, was by public demand. Back when the fourth mystery, Deadly Shoals was in production, my editor at Minotaur/​St Martin Press, Ben Sevier, left for higher things. He was not just a really great editor who loved the Wiki Coffin novels, but he was my knight in shining armor, who kept the series going. Once he had gone, it was easy for the publisher to say, No more.

Sales weren't great enough, it seems -- though Ben always said that patience was needed, as it takes time for a historical mystery series to develop solid sales. He was right, because there were lots of Wiki Coffin fans out there. Perhaps they were borrowing the books from libraries, instead of buying them, but they were definitely keen on my hero, and the emails kept on a-coming. When was there going to be a fifth Wiki Coffin adventure? "Ask the publisher," I kept on saying. But of course the publisher remained unmoved.

The folks at the wonderful Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine are great fans, too. They keep on publishing Wiki Coffin stories ("We love them," they say); and, what's more, they make them lead stories, and cover stories, sometimes. That has kept the fans alert. But the short stories are just a taste, they complain. Where is the next full-length book?

To complicate matters still further, Allen & Unwin in Australia had bought the NZ/​Australia rights, and brought out their own edition -- and each book had the first chapter of the next at the end, as a taster. When Deadly Shoals was in production they asked me to submit the first chapter of number five, provisionally titled The Beckoning Ice. And I did it. It was a real cliffhanger, if I say so myself. I reproduce it below, so you can see for yourself. But then the series came to an abrupt halt when the publishers in New York made their final decision, and the cliffhanger kept on hanging...

And the fans didn't like it. More emails kept on coming, pleading for the mystery to be solved. Where was the cliffhanger going?

It took me five years to find out. And once it was written, I had to publish it myself. It was an experiment, and it was fun. You have to read it on a digital gadget, because there is no point in print publishing when I am a half-world away from the market where I would need to promote it, but I have great faith in the digital revolution, so I don't see that as a problem.

And isn't the cover gorgeous? The artwork was created by Ron Druett.


Prologue


Antarctic Ocean, February 3, 1839

When the crew of the sealer Betsey of Stonington, Connecticut, met their close brush with death, the schooner was steering northeast, heading home after a short but very profitable season far south of Cape Horn. Just before noon it began to snow hard, but the strong wind was both favorable and constant, and the old schooner was cutting through the water like a racer, so the mate, who was in charge of the deck, didn't feel unduly alarmed. When he called out to a seaman, however, something very strange happened, so he belatedly sent for the captain.

When Captain Noyes came up from the warm fug of the cabin, he stopped short, partly because he couldn't see his hand in front of his face, and partly because the first breath of fresh air cut like a knife. In twelve years of sailing the Antarctic south he had never felt attacked by the cold like this. He could hear the men on watch stamping their numb feet and flapping their arms about their chests. The deckboards were hidden beneath a thick, slippery blanket, while more snow swept down on them in undulating sheets. It was as if the Betsey was racing from nowhere to nowhere, trapped in a world of swirling white. God, Noyes thought, he should have been called up long before, and he silently cursed the mate for his idiotic bullheadedness.

Stumbling and sliding in the blinding murk, he finally found the offender. "How long has it been so thick, Mr. Jeffrey?"

"Since before noon," said the mate.

"So what made you finally decide it might be a good idea to send for me?"

Mr. Jeffrey winced at the sarcasm. "It's just that it seemed so strange, sir."

"Strange? What in hell are you babbling about?"

"An echo came back when I shouted out for a hand to heave the log - like there's a nearby ship, or something."

"Echo? What the devil?" Then Noyes abruptly realized the full horror of their situation. "Ice!" he cried, and an echo instantly sounded, "Ice, ice, ice."

He shouted, "There's a bloody berg somewhere near!" Desperate to stop the schooner in her headlong course, he screamed out orders—too late. The snow abruptly thinned, revealing a tall ice island on the starboard bow. At the same instant, the sails sagged and flopped. The berg had stolen their wind, and the schooner was moving only by her own momentum.

Seventy-foot cliffs reared over them, blotting out the sky. The Betsey surged slowly through the glutinous, near-frozen water, parallel to the shore, just a dozen yards from foaming reefs. The decks were utterly silent, every seaman rigidly still as the schooner glided stealthily on. Noyes was holding his breath, conscious of the heavy thud of his heart in his ears. Then, with a jolt of primitive horror, he stared up into the eyes of a corpse.

The dead man was standing on a high ledge, his back to the cliff. Noyes could see him in detail. It was obvious that the man had been bludgeoned to death. Thick gouts of blood lay frozen on his cheeks and forehead, and clotted his thick, black beard. Yet his expression was so alive with savagery that Noyes felt superstitiously convinced he would become animated, if thawed. Then the scouring of exposed flesh by wind and weather registered. The dead man had been frozen to the cliff for months, if not years.

The Betsey reached the extremity of the berg, and the wind seized her sails again. Away she raced towards a clear horizon, leaving the corpse far behind.