Cal McGill is back. The sea detective, introduced in the eponymous novel of 2011, gets involved in a second adventure that brings together old and new family models, suppressed secrets, unrequited love and the mysteries of the ocean. In a crowded market, authors of crime or mystery fiction have to try ever harder to make their detectives stand out. The ‘sea detective’ is an oceanographer who uses technology, knowledge and experience to track the movement of objects (and, increasingly, bodies) in the sea. This may seem like a far-fetched idea with limited potential, yet in Cal McGill, Douglas-Home has created a complex and appealing character who will easily sustain a series of novels.
The Woman who Walked into the Sea is set in Poltown, an imaginary community in the North of Scotland, near Ullapool. The location may be made up, but the community that the author brings to life creates a vivid impression of lives shaped by landscape, weather, family and custom. The narrative opens with a funeral scene, but nothing is at it seems. The deceased is not a victim of crime, and the mourner whose perspective we follow is neither a heroine nor a villain. In fact, one of the most striking things about this novel is that Douglas-Home bends the rules of the genre enough to upset most of our expectations of a “whodunit,” while at the same time satisfying our need for mystery, intrigue, investigations and solutions. The sea detective himself is introduced early on in the novel, and those who have read the previous book will be happy to be updated on his progress. However, a full explanation of who he is and what he does for a living does not come until about half way through the book, and even then he explains that he would rather do environmental work than track floating bodies.
The dual interest in the environment and the mysteries of missing bodies is one that the detective shares with his creator. Alongside the mystery that the main narrative deals with, there is also a sub-plot involving the proposal to build a large wind farm that many in the community view as a threat rather than an opportunity. The wind farm business may be a bit of a red herring in relation to the main plot, but it lends the book depth and complexity. The main investigation is also one that throws up moral complexities, as a young single mother from Glasgow, abandoned outside the local hospital as a baby, arrives in Poltown trying to find out what happened to her mother. Her presence stirs up unhappy memories and dark secrets, and the final revelations bring enlightenment, but not much peace. The culture shock that a Glasgow woman may experience on her first visit to a small rural community is underplayed, as is the relationship that develops between her and the detective, but those unexpected elements keep the book fresh and prevent it from becoming formulaic.
Readers who like their mystery novels fast-paced may find this book disappointing, but that would be their loss. Like so much of the best crime fiction in the British tradition, this novel does not rely too much on action and quick plot advancement. Instead, it asks the readers to slow down, hear the wind and the sea, take in the landscape while it remains relatively unspoilt, and get to know the characters before deciding who the heroes or villains are. Near the end of the narrative, the sea detective receives an email from a distraught family who need his help, but he seems reluctant to commit, unhappy to be confronted with misery and pain. Let’s hope he takes the job all the same.