A Very Fishy Business
By Ian Clarke
Book Review by Lee Murray
A Bay of Plenty fishing boat is long overdue, as is this psychological page-turner.
A Very Fishy Business, a debut novel from Tauranga writer Ian Clarke, is agentleman’s John Grisham, a keenly-observed suspense drama set in a small Coromandel township. It’s the story of naive bachelor Ralph Sinclair, newly ashore and recently-appointed as a ship surveyor, he’s the ‘Ministry Man’ on the spot when a commercial fishing boat is reported overdue.
Sinclair is enlisted to assist Marine Inspector Rothfall investigate the boat’s disappearance, but the inspector’s prickly methods meet with resistance. Seduced by the town’s charms, and falling in love with the missing skipper’s daughter, Sinclair is drawn inexorably into a net of small-town secrets and insecurities. When the disagreeable Captain Rothfall is found dead, Sinclair, the outsider, finds himself accused of murder.
In writing circles, it’s commonly agreed you should write what you know, and author Ian Clarke has done just that. Going to sea at sixteen, the Master Mariner has served as a systems engineer, a lecturer in nautical studies, a surveyor of ships, and a maritime safety inspector. The cumulative knowledge from these experiences slip seamlessly into A Very Fishy Business. What’s more, Clarke was once employed by a “shadowy firm that provided intellectual services to the British military.” This could explain both his talent for intrigue, and his discreet and unassuming manner.
Likewise, Clarke’s writing style is understated, almost restrained. Steering clear of grisly crime scenes, he chooses instead to build suspense though clever plotting and realistic, pithy dialogue. His small-town characters are so well-observed, one wonders if the author has spent more than the odd weekend people-watching at seaside establishments like the Landing Hotel.
But it’s not all scholarly analysis. The story is salted with humour; an unfortunate incident with a pair of binoculars, a comical end to a romantic tryst, and, amongst the cast of characters are Fin Bass, Miss Spratt, Foggerty, the ethereal inspector preferred by the townsfolk, and the Phillett Fishing Company, the subject of the inquiry.