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Fresh Blood

Name: Mark Douglas-Home

Title of Book: The Sea Detective

'...propelled me on like a ship sailing a feisty sea. '

Cal McGill is arrested for placing plants in the gardens of politicians’ properties. D.I. Ryan is determined to make a charge stick on McGill, no matter how small. But nobody wants to press charges, and even some of the politicians’ wives want to keep the plants! Ryan is determined that he will have an arrest as it will look good for his forthcoming promotional interview.

And then dismembered feet in trainers wash up on the shores of several Hebrides Islands, two of which in different shoes came from the same person. There is only one person who can trace where these body parts come from – that person is Cal McGill. This is not news that makes Ryan happy. But Cal has his own problems when new information comes to light about his disgraced grandfather who died during WW2.

Ryan’s subordinate is D.C. Helen Jamieson. Fat and unattractive but also intelligent, Helen is not enamoured of her boss who has slept with several women in the force and won’t even give her a second glance. She has her own agenda. Then there is Bashanti – a girl who has been sold in to the sex trade. She is making her way to someone important with information. And there is a huge network of people that are determined she should not reach her goal.

I admit I wasn’t too sure of where Douglas-Home was taking me when I first started this book. Writing about a guy leaving plants in gardens doesn’t feel it could set the world on fire, but it is a good introduction to Cal McGill who is sorely concerned that a second Ice Age is imminent if people in power continue to allow others to abuse the planet we live on.

Through this introduction we are informed that Cal is fascinated by the cold and warm currents and the tides which form a large part of the solutions to the puzzles in this book. Within there are at least three cases; the sex trade girls, the random dismembered feet and Cal’s journey to find out the truth about his grandfather. The latter takes up the main body of the book and to me was the most interesting and intriguing part.

Cal’s grandfather was born and raised on an isolated island which has since been abandoned, very much in the same vein as the famous St. Kilda. This is where Douglas-Home builds up Cal’s character. Before that he is simply a loner and appears socially awkward. He is rude, in particular with his needy ex, Rachel who can’t let go of Cal, despite his obvious annoyance with her. Cal’s investigation into his grandfather’s death is well thought-out and thought-provoking. I am sure there are many more undocumented travesties carried out within these small insular communities. The fate of Uilleam (pronounced William) Sinclair, Cal’s maternal grandfather propelled me on like a ship sailing a feisty sea. I couldn’t wait to find out the truth behind this man’s disgrace and why he had been erased from the island’s history. The solution is satisfying and allows Cal to close a door on this matter that has plagued his family for several generations.

The other person I really found intriguing was D.C. Helen Jamieson. Despite not being a particularly warm character, Helen has great depth and her constant contrariness and underhandedness are sublime and I would love to know more about her. Her scheming towards her colleagues and in particular, her boss, Ryan is played out with wonderful accuracy and imagination.

I don’t like comparisons but ‘The Sea Detective’ does have overtones (or maybe that should be ‘currents’ considering the nucleus of Douglas-Home’s novel) of Ann Cleeves and has the aroma of a Reginald Hill who was a master at weaving random cases. I am not saying that Douglas-Home is the new Reginald Hill, but ‘The Sea Detective’ is certainly a strong start to what I consider an exciting and different crime series. We shall have to see what currents will direct Douglas-Home’s characters and readers in books to come.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) Your debut features Cal McGill who is the ‘sea detective’ of your title. Does such a role exist and do people help out investigations in the way you describe?
Cal McGill's skill is in knowing how drifting objects, including dead bodies, travel across the sea and in understanding the factors which influence that movement - winds, currents as well as the size and shape of the object involved. He makes a living from this niche area of oceanography which is unusual but not in itself fiction. Some marine scientists are also specialists in this type of work. Their research is vitally important in search and rescue at sea where calculating the probable and different drift trajectories of, say, someone lost in a dinghy or a person wearing a life jacket, becomes a matter of life and death. Another example of the practical application of this area of science was when Malaysian airliner MH370 disappeared into the Indian Ocean in March 2014. Oceanographers were used to predict where any debris would be likely to drift.
2) Your plot revolves around the sea and its currents which was fascinating. Is this your ‘normal’ job or is this something you have always been interested in and wanted to incorporate in your novel?
My normal job used to be journalism. I've worked for eight newspapers, including The Independent, the Sunday Times, The Scotsman and ,finally, The Herald in Glasgow where I was editor.

Although I have always loved the sea, I had little detailed knowledge of the interaction of the various natural forces at play. The idea for the novel and a character like Cal McGill came to me when I was on a family holiday on Ardnamurchan, a peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. We visited a graveyard which overlooked the sea and islands to the north. Inside the gate were two white marble stones marking the graves of merchant seamen who had died in the Second World War. Underneath a cross was the inscription 'Known unto God' which was the form of words for unidentified war dead devised by Rudyard Kipling.

Standing by these graves it seemed so poignant that these two bodies had never been identified or that their families never knew their final resting place was somewhere quite so beautiful. The idea for a 'sea detective' character occurred to me then - someone who could work out where bodies might have come from as well as where they might float to.

The next step was to research the subject, something I was used to doing as a journalist. I read widely, including textbooks on oceanography and the research dealing with Cal McGill's particular niche. (I have beside me now a paper entitled 'Forecasting the Drift of Objects and Substances in the Ocean'.) I talked to lifeboatmen and the coastguard. I was also given invaluable help and advice by Toby Sherwin, then a professor of oceanography at the Scottish Marine Institute near Oban.
3) Despite Cal McGill taking centre stage, he isn’t the warmest of characters and a bit of a loner. In fact, although I loved your book, there wasn’t really anyone you could say was particularly friendly. Was this deliberate?
I suppose it's fair to say that Cal McGill is a solitary character but I don't think that he's cold. Rather like the objects he tracks, he is buffeted by various different forces that push him towards the margins - in his case, that means remote coasts where he feels most at home. A number of the characters in ‘The Sea Detective’ have something in common. One way or another they have been displaced and they don't really know where they belong. Perhaps that sense of dislocation makes them appear unfriendly, but I think that it would be more accurate to say that they are distracted. Like McGill, they have personal mysteries to resolve.
4) If I liked anyone, it had to be DC Helen Jamieson, although she was quite mercurial in her thoughts and had her own hidden agenda. How was she formed and does she have a few more sly tricks up her sleeve?
She appeared out of the blue one day! I started writing a scene and there she was, a well-educated woman frustrated by people (her police superiors in particular) judging her by her appearance and not by her intelligence. Because she is lonely, she has an inner voice, which speaks to her at inappropriate moments. See my answer to question 7 for any tricks that Helen Jamieson might have up her sleeve.
5) It was fascinating reading about the deserted island, Eilean Iasgaich where Cal’s grandfather grew up. How much research was needed to build the foundations in making your imaginary island feel so real? How much of the imaginary history of the island was formed by real life events?
There are islands like Eilean Iasgaich off the west and north coasts of Scotland, places which once had small populations leading subsistence lives but which are now abandoned. The most famous of these was St Kilda but there are other examples. Eilean Iasgaich is a distillation of a number of these. Apart from researching oceanography I have also read a large number of books about Scottish Island life of the past. I also spend time visiting islands and coastal Scotland. As I write this, I am looking out of a window through rain (!) at the Summer Isles north of Ullapool.
6) You portray a close, insular coastal village so well I wondered if you had lived in such a place yourself?
No, I never have lived in one except growing up on a small farm. I have now visited a lot of small coastal communities, but being a visitor can never really provide more than superficial knowledge of their workings. The rest has to be imagination.
7) It is unclear at the end of ‘The Sea Detective’ if we will see either Helen Jamieson or Cal McGill. Are you working on their next novel or will you move elsewhere with other characters?
‘The Sea Detective’ is the first of a series. Cal McGill will continue to be the main character. Helen Jamieson will probably come and go depending on the plot. She doesn't appear in the next book, ‘The Woman Who Walked Into The Sea’ (to be published in January), but she does feature in the third, ‘The Malice of Waves’, which will be released next spring. I'm researching the fourth book in the series at the moment.
8) What are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you and you would wish to have on a deserted island?
I am not a huge fan of police procedural books. I tend to like crime books that are strong on character. The three I would take to a desert island are:

Norwegian by Night - Derek Miller

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson

The Paying Guests - Sarah Waters (although she is not a crime writer, crime features in this and other of her books. Her writing is wonderful and she is so good on description, dialogue and interactions between characters.)