The Malice of Waves

Mark Douglas-Home

Penguin, £7.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

To the best of my knowledge, The Malice Of Waves is the first novel literally to give me nightmares. Finished reading it at 2.30am and woke up three hours later from a dream in which I’d committed murder and was fleeing the country with nothing more than a small backpack and the clothes I stood up in. (Nothing in that sentence constitutes a spoiler, by the way.) For a crime novel, that’s surely a mark of distinction. It’s also neatly constructed and well-written, Douglas-Home’s prose purposeful and to the point but never merely functional.

Books often open with a helpful map of the territory in which they take place. What’s different about The Malice Of Waves is that it instead provides its readers with a chart of the Atlantic covered in arrows showing the paths of the Gulf Stream, the North Atlantic Current and so on. That’s because Douglas-Homes creation, Sea Detective Cal McGill, is a sleuth with a difference: an oceanographer who, when he’s not using his knowledge of the currents to identify polluters, helps the police determine where drowned bodies originated, or where they might be washed ashore.

We join McGill, now In his third novel, as he’s sinking a dead pig in Hebridean waters in an attempt to solve an old mystery. Five years earlier, 14-year-old Max Wheeler disappeared from Priest’s Island, just off the fictional Eilean Dubh. The boy’s father, who owns Priest’s Island and angered the locals by refusing them grazing rights, won’t let the matter rest, and continues to pour his dwindling funds into the search. Relations with the islanders have deteriorated further since he accused them of harbouring his son’s murderer, making him and his three daughters most unwelcome on Eilean Dubh. By taking Wheeler’s money to study the ocean currents and hopefully locate the boy’s body, McGill is automatically considered biased and untrustworthy. No warmth is shown him at the Deep Blue cafe, the island’s social hub.

There is in fact a conspiracy of silence going on, but it’s not as simple as the inhabitants just closing ranks. It’s more like a chain of loyalty, with certain islanders reluctant to say anything that might bring close friends or relatives under suspicion, whether their activities are connected with the missing boy or not. Besides the way that it vividly evokes the splendid desolation of the landscape, the novel’s great strength is its convincing depiction of the complex dynamics of the community of Eilean Dubh. Indeed, Douglas-Home seems to have put so much emphasis on it that McGill, by comparison, leaves less of an impression this time around than on previous outings. He’s a self-contained, undemonstrative man whose passion is the sea and the wide-open spaces surrounding it. The unrequited affection felt for him by the self-conscious and socially awkward detective sergeant Helen Jamieson, who goes undercover on Eilean Dubh, warms this chilly tale, and is one of the few signs that there might be a way into the heart of this obsessive oceanographer.