Dear Reader: a letter from Mark Douglas-Home
I had the idea for the Sea Detective series of books while I was visiting a graveyard. Yes, I know, I should feel ashamed. Graveyards are for the dead, for remembering, not thinking about crime mysteries or thrillers.
It was on a wild peninsula on the west coast of Scotland where, on a clear day, you look across the sea to the islands of Muck and Eigg. In the far distance, about 30 miles away, are the jagged tops of the Cuillins on Skye. It’s a place which might inspire all kinds of life-changing resolutions similar to ‘I must give up my job, rent a cottage and keep hens’. In my case, it was: ‘I’d like to write about an oceanographer who solves mysteries by being able to track floating dead bodies as well as other flotsam.’
This is why I thought that.
Just inside the graveyard are two white headstones bearing the words ‘Known unto God’, the inscription suggested by Rudyard Kipling for unidentified war dead. These graves contain the remains of two Merchant Navy men who are described with heart-breaking simplicity as ‘A sailor of the 1939-45 war’. Perhaps they were killed when their ship or ships were torpedoed in the Atlantic. Perhaps they died some other way. We’ll never know.
But it’s hard to stand in front of those graves and not wish that, somehow, their families had been told about their bodies being washed up, about their menfolk being laid to rest in this heaven on earth.
Imagine how consoling that knowledge might have been, might still be. Instead of each new generation hearing about father, grandfather, Great Uncle Alf or Tom being lost at sea, they’d be told about their burial in this most beautiful of places, with curlews and oyster catchers calling, with that view.
So, looking at these graves, I thought: wouldn’t it have been wonderful if someone could have worked out where these men went into the sea, the direction and speed of drift, so their ship/ships could have been identified? If that had been known, then perhaps they could have been identified too.
Back home in Edinburgh, I read up on oceanography, text books as well as research papers, and discovered there were marine scientists engaged in this type of tracking work. I spoke to oceanographers as well as the Coastguard and Lifeboat crew about the particular niche that now interests me: how floating objects, including bodies, travel in water.
Among other things, I learned that this area of work is vitally important for search and rescue at sea. The calculations of these scientists about the effect winds, currents and tides have on different types of objects – from coastal freighters, yachts, life rafts, to a fisherman who has fallen overboard – can make the difference between life and death. In search and rescue, timing is crucial – for example, knowing where a PIW (person in water) will have drifted when a helicopter is overhead. I was also interested to read that this is still an imprecise science and that ‘hunch’ and local knowledge have roles to play, particularly in coastal areas. It allows for uncertainty, for mystery, for fiction; for Cal McGill, my sea detective.
In The Malice of Waves, the third book in the Sea Detective series, Cal has been hired to uncover new evidence about the fate of a fourteen-year-old boy who spent the night on an uninhabited island in the Outer Hebrides and disappeared. It’s a story about loss, obsession and death on the Atlantic edge where the sea is as much a character as Cal McGill and the inhabitants.
I hope you enjoy it.