As this is posted, it would have been the 288th birthday of Captain James Cook. As you’ll no doubt know, James Cook made three voyages through the Pacific Ocean, and gave the Western world a treasure trove of information and insights about that ocean and the people who always lived there.
Cook’s explorations had a major impact on world history, and certainly on the history of the Pacific. So, I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at some crime fiction from places that he visited.
One of the first places Cook stopped on his voyages was Tahiti. As beautiful as it is, Tahiti can also be dangerous. For instance, in Lloyd Shephard’s historical (1812) thriller The Poisoned Island, Thames River Police Chief Charles Horton is faced with a difficult mystery. A research vessel, the Solander, in from Tahiti, has just docked in the Thames. Aboard it is a cargo of rare plants destined for the King’s Gardens in Kew. At first, all goes as expected. Then, the Solander’s crew begins to die, one by one. There’s no sign of suicide, and no indication that these are murders, either. To make matters more complicated, the surviving crew members do nothing to support the investigation – in fact, quite the opposite. Still, Horton traces the disturbing events to the ship’s cargo, and finds that one of the plants is starting to behave strangely. It turns out that this mystery has its roots in Tahiti, more than forty years earlier.
After Tahiti, Cook explored New Zealand quite extensively. If you’d like to do the same, there are several Kiwi authors, from the Golden Age’s Ngaio Marsh, to today’s Paddy Richardson, Paul Cleave, Jane Woodham and Ray Berard, who can show you around. As you’ll know, the Māori had already lived in Aotearoa/New Zealand for quite some time before Cook’s arrival. For more insights into the modern Māori way of life, you may want to try Paul Thomas’ Tito Ihaka novels. Ihaka is a Māori Auckland police detective who has his own way of doing things. Berard’s Inside the Black Horse also gives some insight into modern Māori life. There are plenty of other examples, too. Crime Watch is an excellent resource for all things Kiwi-crime-fictional.
Cook’s travels also took him to Botany Bay, in what is now Sydney. In fact, Botany Bay was the site of his first landing in Australia. Later, the place became the landing site for those sentenced to transportation to Australia. That experience is captured in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, which takes place in the early 19th Century. That novel begins in London, as William Thornhill ekes out a living as a bargeman. When he’s caught stealing a load of wood, he’s faced with execution. But in a turn of events, he’s sentenced instead to transportation. So, he, his wife, Sal, and their children go to Sydney. Sal sets up a makeshift pub, and William hires out to Thomas Blackwood, owner of The River Queen. When William discovers the beautiful Hawkesbury River, he finds the perfect piece of land that he wants for his own. He convinces Sal to pull up stakes and move, and the family starts over again on their new land. Or is it? Aboriginal people have been there for a very long time, and conflict between them and the settlers becomes more and more likely. While this isn’t a traditional crime novel, there are some terrible crimes committed, and the more time goes on, the more William sees that there isn’t going to be a peaceful way to resolve the situation.
There are far, far too many other talented Australian writers for me to even come close to mentioning them all. But have no fear: Fair Dinkum Crime is the site for exploring Australian crime fiction, and I strongly encourage you do to just that.
Cook’s voyages also took him to the North Pacific, including Vancouver Island. Vancouver features in several fine examples of Canadian crime fiction. For example, Seán Haldane’s historical (1868-1869) The Devil’s Making tells the story of Chad Hobbes, who’s recently completed his degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford. Now, armed with a letter of introduction, he lands in Vancouver, ready to make a new life there. The letter helps him get a job as a constable – at the time, not very demanding work. It’s mostly a matter of breaking up drunken quarrels and occasionally ‘clearing out’ places of prostitution. Then, there’s a murder. A group of Tsimshian Indians has discovered the mutilated body of an American immigrant, Richard McCrory. The word is that he was having a relationship with Luskwaas, one of the Tsimshians. Her partner, Wiladzap, is the leader of that group, and had a very good motive for murder, so he is soon arrested. He claims to be innocent, though, and Hobbes wants to conduct an appropriate investigation. As he begins to ask questions, he finds that plenty of other people also had a reason to want McCrory dead.
Today’s Canadian crime fiction is as varied and diverse as the country is. There is no possible way for me to do justice to it in one post – not even in one book. If you want to explore Canadian crime fiction in more depth, look no further than Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan, which is your source for thoughtful, interesting posts and reviews about what’s happening in crime-fictional Canada.
Cook’s luck ran out, as the saying goes, in Hawai’i. It’s a gorgeous place, but it didn’t end up being peaceful for Cook or his crew. And crime fiction shows just how dangerous those islands can be. Earl Der Biggers’ Charlie Chan mysteries mostly take place in Hawai’i, and fans of that series can tell you that all sorts of things can go terribly wrong there. More recently, there’s the work of R. Barri Flowers, whose novels include several Hawai’i-based novels such as Murder in Maui. There’s other crime fiction set in Hawai’i, too.
You see? Captain Cook wasn’t the only one for whom trips through the Pacific proved fatal…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Bali Ha’i.