I'm not sure if, strictly speaking, The Whaleboat House qualifies as a forgotten book--after all it won the CWA Silver Dagger for best debut, and his second novel, The Savage Garden, was a Richard & Judy finalist, but as he had managed to slip under my crime-reviewing radar, I thought I'd revisit it, to see if it deserved its award. And I'm pleased I to say, it probably did, though it's also fair to ask how many award winning books have since been retitled by their publishers? Maybe they assumed a British audience wouldn't figure out it was a place name, and certainly wouldn't know how to pronounce Amagansett (it would come out Uh-MAG-an-set). But the original title was Amagansett (see below left) when it was published in 2004 (and it's a place name, pronounced AM-a-gan-set, just like it looks) but perhaps that name looked too serious for a Dagger winner. Even under its new title (which I confess actually works better) it's had two different paperback editions, the first pitching it more as a crime story, as befits a Dagger winner, the second positing it as a sort of historical piece of serious fiction, dirty realism set in the immediate post war, with a romantic twinge, as befits a Richard & Judy nominee (see below right). The problem with the latter approach is that although Mills writes well, and his period setting is drawn well and intriguingly, the story is, at heart, a mystery, and a tale of revenge.
It's notable too for its setting, the immediate postwar fishing community of Amagansett, before the huge boom in the Hamptons, when fishermen still plied their trade in New York's waters (see Joseph Mitchell's exquisite collection, The Bottom Of The Harbor, for a brilliantly realised picture of that industry from the same era). Conrad Labarde is the descendant of Basque fishermen, and works the waters from his shack on the ocean side of Long Island, along with his friend Rollo, the somewhat dimwitted scion of the area's oldest fishing family. It's Rollo who's brought the whalehouse to Conrad's property: and the second title is a far better one for this book; along Amagansett is the setting, it is the whalehouse that sees the story.
Conrad and Rollo bring up the body of Lillian Wallace, one of the wealthy population who visit the area on summer weekends. But Conrad has his own history with Lillian, and knowing the presumed suicide is a murder, he investigates alongside Tom Hollis, a disgraced former New York cop now deputy chief in the small town. The investigation, of course, visits the areas where cultures clash, while Hollis, whose own investigation is directed, as it were, by a few dropped words from Conrad, also discovers ways around his own problems. As well as Lillian's death, Conrad is also haunted by his experiences in the war, where he was an assassin, and somehow blessed with luck while those around him died.
This is a lot to pack into a relatively small package, but Mills does it well. You might say it's too much, that the Hollis and Labrade backstories are slightly too melodramatic, but I think that what is also going on here is a bit of homage from a British novelist to the great novels of the early twentieth century: not just Joseph Conrad, which is signaled pretty obviously, or Fitzgerald's Gatsby, which of course is the classic novel of a Hamptons hit and run leading to more serious crimes. There are echoes of Hemingway, and Steinbeck too, and maybe even a little John O'Hara. It's as if Mills is simply touching those familiar soft spots, and it wouldn't work if he hadn't made his own characters so real, real enough to carry the story through. Its denouement is, like the backstories, somewhat melodramatic, and certainly we see it coming because we've seen it before, but it is handled well, and resolved honestly. As I said, Mills writes very well, and writes his American scenes and characters as well as any Anglo-Irish writer since John Connolly. The fact that he can make his period story resonate with echoes of great novels while still keeping the suspense compelling suggests the Daggers, and maybe even Richard & Judy, were right.
The Whaleboat House by Mark Mills
Harper Perennial 2005 £6.99 ISBN 0007161921