Book review: By the sea

This brief book review by Frank Norman was first published in the 2011/2012 Mill Hill Essays.

This Gothic novel is a cracking good story, with an intricate and unpredictable plot. There are two stories in parallel: a scientific story and a detective story, with a hefty dose of intrigue and mystery thrown in. It starts with a death – is it murder or misadventure? – and more deaths follow. All are connected to the mysterious research institute at the heart of the novel. The characters have well-drawn back stories and unexpected interconnections that all make sense in the end, but keep us guessing in the meantime. Scientific imagery and self-consciously flowery language are used to good effect, though sometimes I felt this is laid on with a trowel; occasionally the erudition sits a little too heavily. Luckily there is more than enough humour to compensate. The author has a nice line in funny, slightly Gothic, names. The research institute is called the Lowdley-Purring Institute; the main investigating police officer is called Persephone Sheepwool; the local pub is called The Dazed Haddock.

The scientific details are bang up-to-date, with a good dose of genomic analysis and a shadowy Big Pharma connection in the background. I liked the insightful, almost philosophical, comments about the scientific life such as: “to gain further knowledge, the ocean must be examined drop by drop” and “it is in the very nature of unknown things to stretch familiar concepts, to demand new ways of thinking, and new symbols in which such concepts might be expressed succinctly”.

The Institute is vividly drawn, almost to the point of caricature. We are drawn into its closed world and the tangled relationships of its staff. It comes across as a scary place: “The Institute Library would satisfy any curator of the more austere species of nightmare”. We learn that it was founded following the return of a 19th century sea voyage – “The voyage of the spaniel”. Documents from the voyage hidden in the Library, and some preserved samples from the voyage – such as the grimly wonderful Pickled Lily – are amongst the treasures of the Institute. Much of the intrigue flows from this shadowy past. It is a finely wrought and compelling novel, with a pleasing mixture of suspense, the grotesque and laugh-out-loud humour.

By the sea, by Henry Gee is published by, 2009.

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