The Driftwood Girls

Mark Douglas-Home

Penguin, £8.99

IT’s hard to imagine in the era of 24-hour news, but there was a time when the deputy editor of the Herald could be found in his office, shortly before the first edition went to press, feverishly working on his novel. That man was George MacDonald Fraser, and the person with whom he shared his room was Flashman, an unscrupulous, dastardly, charismatic, hard-drinking, womanising cad who – one is tempted to suggest – was drawn directly from the news desk’s reporters.

Some years later, the Herald’s night sub-editor’s role was filled by Bill Watson, whose thrillers were written under the name of JK Mayo. Now unfairly forgotten, in his lifetime they earned him a reputation as “Le Carre without the longueurs”.

Many are the novels that have been conceived during the newspaper’s long working shift, only some of which ever came to fruition. In the case of former Herald editor Mark Douglas-Home, however, his career as a crime writer began after he departed the chair. One doubts that embryonic thoughts of his dour hero Cal McGill, a sea detective, ever distracted him while on duty.

Douglas-Home was my boss for several years, and his editorial conferences could be testing. His main complaint about me as literary editor, as I recall, was that I put too much history onto the pages (he was right). It came as no surprise, then, that when he turned to fiction, his inspiration came not from the Jacobites or Red Clydeside but from the present day. Or that while the elegant restraint of his novels is literary, the Sea Detective series is crime fiction whose main events could have been culled from the news pages almost any week of the year.

Every good crime writer needs an original twist, and Douglas-Home’s is an investigator whose work is nine parts science to one part guesswork. An oceanographer by profession, Dr Cal McGill runs a private detection agency specialising in finding the back story to corpses, wreckage or flotsam that are washed ashore. Expert in tracing missing persons, his occupation is akin to deciphering a message in a bottle, establishing, for instance, where a body or object went into the water and, by a process of “hindcasting” – tracing its route, and the speed of tides and currents by which it has passed – calculating when it happened and who might have been involved.

Unlike many of the genre’s private eyes, Cal respects the police. “They were expert at finding connections onshore. Cal’s expertise in backtracking allowed him to do the same offshore. The motion of the sea, the variability of winds, the various sizes, shapes and buoyancy of different objects combined to make things appear disconnected. For Cal, they were the oceanographic equivalent of a criminal conspiracy. They concealed evidence.”

It’s a clever and unique niche, and adds a frisson of novelty. Watching Cal at work is fascinating, a man wholly absorbed by the way water moves. In his single-minded focus, his love of the remote places his job takes him to, and his ability to shut out everything but the task in hand, he is like many lone wolves of the crime genre. He joins a fellowship whose members include the likes of Rebus and Wallander, Tony Hill and Cormoran Strike. Not that any of these would join a club. In common with them, Cal likes his own company best. Emotionally in limbo, with a painful family history, he is more than a little dysfunctional.

Now in his early thirties, Cal has already lost one marriage to his love of solitude. When The Driftwood Girls opens, he is not so much involved with detective sergeant Helen Jamieson as passing by her like a ship in the night. Her increasingly frustrated attempts to throw a grappling hook over his bows are, as yet, proving fruitless.

In all respects this, the fourth title in the series – which has been optioned for television – is a substantial book. The main theme around which it is woven, as in the others, is grief and unresolved loss. At its centre are the sisters Kate and Flora Tolmie, whose mother disappeared 23 years ago, and who never knew their father. When Flora also disappears, Kate contacts Cal. By the time a homeless man is found stabbed in Edinburgh, having claimed to be Flora’s dad, Cal is on the case. Old questions become pressing, especially since Kate is the prime suspect for his death.

One plot line would never suffice in any crime novel, but Douglas-Home is particularly keen on proliferation and obfuscation. Hence the accumulation of characters and historic events that turn The Driftwood Girls into a complicated and unpredictable game of three-dimensional chess.

Seemingly disconnected to the Tolmie tragedy, there is Cal’s friend Alex, who is urgently trying to reach him. There is a small community on Texel, one of the West Frisian islands off the Dutch coast, where two women are, for different reasons, intrigued by the monosyllabic Norwegian Olaf Hausen, who will already be familiar to Douglas-Home’s readers. The finest beachcomber Cal knows, who earns a living by making driftwood statues, this gentle giant lives in a hand-made bungalow, held together by rope. As the story evolves, the uncommunicative Olaf becomes increasingly central to the drama.

Drama, though, is not the right word for the way in which The Driftwood Girls is told. Given the wealth of material and unlikely connections, and what has befallen some of his cast, this comes as a relief. Suicide, murder and abandonment need no embellishing. But while there is nothing morbid or voyeuristic about the prose, Douglas-Home powerfully evokes the psychological damage and hurt of the people involved in this story.

A portrait of a father whose daughter, Ruth, believed to have killed herself, was washed up on Texel nearly a quarter of a century before, is haunting. The description of his squalor and self-loathing, his impotent rage and torment is superb. The man’s broken physique mirrors the run-down English seaside town where he lives, but while this old wreck sits amid a sea of empty bottles, his eyes are full of life: “Those large eyes stared at the wall above the fireplace, at Ruth’s photographs, with a yearning expression that Cal associated with Old Master paintings depicting adoration.”

Indeed, the novel’s complicated plot, which rarely falters, is held on course by the persuasive depth of the personalities that fill it. When new faces appear, they are sketchily portrayed, only slowly given heft. As a result the early chapters create a sense of floundering and bafflement, Douglas-Home unreeling facts and background with a miserly hand. It must be how it feels to be a detective, required to make sense of seemingly random details, peering ahead into the dark, but as yet seeing nothing clearly.

Written with grace and clarity, with no fanciful flourishes other than the occasional glimmer of dark humour, this is an impressive piece of work. Cal’s dogged gathering of information makes for an absorbingly driven narrative. In piecing together the past, the sea sleuth also comes better to understand himself: “How unneighbourly he was. How careless he was about people. How contentment for him was to be disconnected from people and property, from commitments and obligations, from community.” It is a moment of self-knowledge that, if he heeds it, bodes well for his future.

Usually the detective is the presiding figure in a crime novel. With The Driftwood Girls, however, everything is dwarfed and overshadowed by the seas and their secrets. You might see it as a metaphor – though Douglas-Home sparingly uses them – for the ceaseless stormy ebb and flow of human affairs.