Malcolm Archibald,
Whales for the Wizard
(Polygon, 2005)

It is 1860 in the shipping-intensive town of Dundee, Scotland, and Robert Douglas, the down-on-his-luck hero of Whales for the Wizard, has a dilemma -- which of two job opportunities should he pursue? It's either be a personal assistant for a relatively respectable rich man in the whaling business or a gofer for a somewhat seedier man in the netherworld of illegal boxing.

In a positive light, it is a testament to the originality of first-time novelist and Edinburgh native Malcolm Archibald that neither of the chances turns out to be quite what the reader might expect. Here is an author who seems to relish confounding the contrivances heaped upon most modern attempts at good old-fashioned sea yarns. On the gloomier side, while Whales starts off, to all appearances, as a murder-mystery (and is, indeed, praised by Archibald's fellow countryman Ian Rankin, of Inspector Rebus fame), it evolves (or devolves) into more of a whydunit than a who.

Although deaths and other misdeeds aplenty are involved in this winner of the 2005 Dundee Book Prize, the author cannot seem to decide if he's writing a thriller, a psychodrama, a Dickensian good-will-out/romance or what exactly. To the extent that this keeps readers jaded by the predictability offered by all too much of today's genre fiction interested in turning the pages, all the better. But to the extent that the resolution fails to satisfyingly close the plot threads strung out from too much dabbling in too many genres, all the worse.

There is much to be admired here, including some well-wrought passages as Douglas finds himself unwillingly put to sea on a whaling vessel, Redgauntlet, and drawn into circumstances that are uncomfortably similar to those which seem to have befallen her sister ship, Ivanhoe:

At sixty-four degrees north an opaque white veil gradually hazed away the horizon. Redgauntlet sailed on until first her bowsprit and then her foc'sle vanished into mist which wrapped itself round them like a winding sheet. ... Cloying and grey, the fog clasped Redgauntlet like a demon lover, streaming from the yards in long tendrils which snaked and changed and merged into each other, as deceptive as a whore's promise.

What one assumes are authentic details of the customs and hardware of the times (Archibald is a lecturer in history at Dundee College, after all) bob gently before the eyes without being splashingly overwhelming, as would happen with lesser authors too in love with their research findings.

But elsewhere, these waters are troubled by literary devices that feel forced or, at least, too clumsy for full suspension of disbelief:

• Given the many, almost lovingly conveyed miseries of ship life that Douglas must put up with for a long stretch of the narrative, the idea that men such as he, kidnapped and forced to work under constantly demeaning conditions, would grow to be proud of their service cannot help but ring falsely in modern ears. On the other hand, this tactic does allow one of the novel's most unpleasant characters to eventually betray some unforeseen streaks of humanity.

• A fantastically improbable coincidence is needed to finally propel the plot over the horizon of too many chapters spent slogging away at sea and back into the wake of a mystery that ends up being not terribly mysterious after all.

• An early potential love interest for our hero with some real dramatic meat on her bones is scrapped in favor of a scrawny-by-comparison relationship with a tiresome character that only seems to burgeon on the final page, as if Archibald felt he had to work a modicum of romance in there somewhere.

• The pop psychological trick of having a dead soldier who is a former colleague of the hero's help him out of some tight spots by "talking" to him at key moments, without anything truly supernatural going on, is all too reminiscent of Charles Todd's series of Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries set in post World War I Great Britain.

Pacing problems and questionable content choices set aside, Whales for the Wizard comes ashore bearing -- if not a full cargo, at least a deckload of -- convincingly rusticated gifts from the sea for those in the States who crave a taste of 19th-century settings and characters as depicted by someone who should know whereof he writes. Whether Archibald chooses next to bring us another adventure of Robert Douglas, delve into some other current of Scottish history or launch a narrative of a completely unrelated time and topic, I hope the voyage's discoveries come closer to making the price of passage seem worthwhile.

by Gary Cramer
8 October 2005