Book review: The Driftwood Girls, By Mark Douglas-Home

As one character, Detective-Sergeant Helen Jamieson, says when this fourth novel in Mark Douglas-Home’s Sea Detective series is near its end, it’s “a long and rather complicated story about betrayal, revenge and murder.” “Complicated” is certainly the right word. The knots Douglas-Home ties are so intricate and tight that you wonder if they can be unravelled. Happily, they are, and this novel is in the John Buchan tradition in that it offers a plot which is agreeably improbable, but stops short of being impossible.

Mark Douglas-Home
Mark Douglas-Home
Mark Douglas-Home

It begins bizarrely. Cal McGill, the Sea Detective who, with his knowledge of tides and currents, finds bodies lost in the ocean, is required to fulfil a promise made to his friend Alex, who has cancer, that he will bury him in a sea-loch. Alex’s mother holds him to this promise, even though Alex has already been buried in consecrated ground.

Switch then to two young sisters, Katie and Flora, the latter Alex’s  love. Twenty-tree years ago, their mother mysteriously disappeared, her abandoned car found near the French port of Gravelines. They never knew their father and Katie has always resented her mother who, it seems, abandoned them, preferring to engage in charity work, caring for children in Romanian orphanages.Flora, however, believes her mother may still be alive, and continues to search for her, to Katie’s irritation.

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Switch again to the island of Texel, off the Dutch coast, where two women, Sarah, who is English, and Lotte, French, have formed a sometimes uneasy friendship, and a still more difficult one with a beachcomber, Olaf, who makes human figures out of driftwood – figures that have every human feature except a mouth. Why, one wonders, are these people there? Hiding perhaps? And what, one asks, may be their connection – for there must surely be one – with Flora and Katie, and even, perhaps, the late Alex?

The different strands whet one’s curiosity. The narrative gets underway. The pace quickens. Flora disappears. Cal, victim of recent bad publicity, rouses himself from lethargy and, perhaps, depression, and, urged on by DS Jamieson, goes in search of her. Meanwhile Katie, anger with her sister turning to anxiety, finds messages sent to Flora offering information about their mother. And then there is a murder.

The pieces of the jigsaw are spread out, scattered on the table. Can they be made to fit? Can a coherent picture be put together? Cal’s researches take him back to the last sighting of Flora’s mother and to a guesthouse in Southwold on the Suffolk Coast where a mysterious suitcase has been discovered. The past may indeed be another country where they do, or did, things differently, but what was done then and there must be examined if the right connections are to be made and mysteries solved. The knots must be disentangled if sense is to be made now of what happened 23 years ago.

A narrative can get along very well without a plot, and many very gripping and enjoyable novels of adventure and investigation can get along perfectly well with a plot so flimsy that it comes apart in your hands. Nevertheless there is a peculiar pleasure to be had from a plot that is as well-made as a fine piece of handmade furniture, and Douglas-Home is a master carpenter. Reviewing one of Somerset Maugham’s late novels, Evelyn Waugh said it offered “the same delight as in watching a first-class cabinet-maker cutting dovetails.” This was why Waugh surprised many by taking great pleasure in  the novels of Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason; they were so well put together. I guess this novel would have pleased him for the same reason.

It’s a first-class mystery, perplexing and at times disturbing, but also with a couple of comic scenes to lighten the atmosphere. McGill is a resourceful investigator, made credible by a melancholy that stops little short of depression. The thorough research is convincing without smothering or retarding the narrative. All in all, it’s a novel that is satisfying, intelligent and compelling, perhaps the finest, so far, of the Sea Detective series – a series that is established already as one of the best in contemporary crime fiction.

The Driftwood Girls, By Mark Douglas-Home, Penguin, 328pp, £8.99