Gone fishing

Gone fishing

Jefferson Chase looks at another whisky laden tome

Whisky & Culture | 03 Dec 2010 | Issue 92 | By Jefferson Chase

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As someone who grew up directly on the Atlantic Ocean, I like everything that reminds me of the sea. So Mark Mills’ 2004 novel The Whaleboat House was right up my proverbial alley. The book is set in a small Long Island fishing village in the immediate wake of World War II and alternates between two main protagonists. The first is a mysterious fisherman named Conrad Labarde, the son of Basque immigrants, who lives in a wonderfully described, humble seaside abode:

The boards groaned under his feet as he shuffled from his shack on to the narrow deck that ringed it. A book lay face down on an upturned fish crate beside the molten remains of a candle and an all-but-empty bottle of cheap Imperial whiskey.

The other protagonist is Tom Hollis, a big-city cop sentenced to the purgatory of the provinces after running afoul of his corrupt superiors. He intuits that there’s something fishy about the socialite’s death but has no concrete reasons for suspicion until Labarde hands him an initial clue. It’s a pair of earrings:

“How many women you know go swimming in their jewelry?”

Damn right, thought Hollis.

The Basque eyed him flatly then slipped a rolled cigarette between his lips and lit it with a steel Zippo.“Army issue?” asked Hollis, nodding at the lighter.“See you around, Deputy.”

Good dialogue always does more than one job at once. Here we learn both that a murder may have been committed, and that there’s more to Lafarge than your average crusty sea-salt.

Mills is a British screenwriter, but plot is neither his strong point nor his main focus. Instead, he seems more interested in capturing the atmosphere of a specific place and time.

He’s got a good ear for the deadpan humour of the American Northeast, on evidence in an exchange between Hollis and the local librarian, who reveals further details about the victim:

“She loved the ocean. I sometimes saw her there, down at the beach, in the evening when I was walking the dog. She liked to swim there.”

Strange, somehow she didn’t seem like a woman who owned a dog. What would it be?Something devoted and fiercely loyal — a retriever, maybe, or a labrador.

“She was a good swimmer?” he asked.

“Not good enough, it seems.”

This back-and-forth in a Maine accent put me right back in the coastal village where I grew up.

Another detail that range true was the fact that the conservative Long Island town where The Whaleboat House is set is full of unsavory secrets. I’m not going to give them away here, even though they aren’t all that unexpected, and the novel’s appeal lies elsewhere.

The Whaleboat House won Mills the Best Crime Novel by a Debut Author Award from Crime Writers’ Association.
It’s evidence the key to great crime fiction is not always the whodunnit.
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