27 years ago the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) anointed Rick Boyer's thinking man's thriller BILLINGSGATE SHOAL with its Edgar Allan Poe Award -- or simply "Edgar." That is, a jury of Boyer's mystery writing peers judged BILLINGSGATE SHOAL the best (among hundreds submitted) mystery novel published in 1982.
Rick Boyer, now my new neighbor in Black Mountain, North Carolina, invited me and three other men for a gourmet lunch last week. Though the four of us old-timers already knew one another, not one of us had so much as heard of Rick Boyer or any of his books, though one of us is a retired professor of American literature. Still, Rick was a most gracious host and we slowly (on the spot and later by googling and visits) came to know and enjoy a genial, companionable, creative new neighbor. Two of us four are currently reading and reviewing some of Rick's published books, while dropping in for chats with the author from time to time.
I paid $1.00 (via nearby Asheville's [...]) plus S&H for Mr Boyer's 1982 BILLINGSGATE SHOAL. The print is 1985 by Warner Books, Inc. Its text is 280 pages, 30 chapters. The front cover shows a scuba diver lying supine and inert underwater with his breathing hose detached. The cover also flags the novel as an Edgar Award winner. To my considerable annoyance, however, the book contains nary a map.
Almost all the action takes place in or near Boston. A minimally useful map need do no more than include the state capital, also Concord (where hero Doctor "Doc" Charles Adams lives), Gloucester and Rockport to the NE of Boston, and in addition a small sweep of the the Atlantic around Cape Cod (where Doc has a summer cottage facing west across Cape Cod Bay from North Eastham). I estimate that I have spent a good 5% of my time during two readings of the novel repeatedly hunching over my Rand-McNally Road Atlas trying to follow Doc's adventures. I urge future editors to add a map to this novel! To paraphrase novelist/song writer Kinky Friedman when he ran for Governor of Texas: "How hard can it be?"
In his first full sentence of the book (Author's Note), Rick Boyer writes: "The places in the book are real; the people aren't."
The places are not only real, but they are important, described in loving, lavish detail, and Doc Adams is in virtually constant motion between all of them. Needed therefore: a good map! (But I repeat myself.) The people, in my view, are not only not real, they are rarely believable or much beyond one dimensional. The book is a first person narrative by oral surgeon Doctor Charles Adams himself. At times he talks and thinks like a college professor, at others as a bit of a low-life semi-cretin.
The novel appears to be realistically accurate as to place and time. There is much in it on the ABCS of constructing, disguising, sailing and abusing a fair variety of boats to be found in and near Cape Cod Bay in September 1979. Focus is on fishing trawlers. The story begins with Doc seeing from his cottage's porch a converted trawler called the Penelope stranded at low tide on Billingsgate Island, a couple of miles out in the bay. It has been damaged and beached itself but manages to float with high tide and limp for repairs into the Cape Cod port of Wellfleet.
Later that day 47-year old Doc and slightly younger wife Mary sail their 20-footer, the Ella Hatton, out from Wellfleet for a few hours of pleasure. Near their boat slip, the couple meets a young man they have long known named, Allan Hart, who is about to snorkle and fish not terribly far out in the Bay. Doc tells Allan of the Penelope's earlier grounding and suggests that Allan take an underwater glance at the oddly behaving trawler to see what the trouble had been. This story so far is going nowhere. But next day Allan is found drowned and he had been conked on the head. Doc feels personal responsibility for the young man's death.
The mystery of BILLINGSGATE SHOAL is now well and properly launched.
Let me dissect the plot for you into three acts: CONTEMPLATION, ACTION, AFTERWORD.
Chapters 1 through 8 introduce good ole Doc (hero of eight more novels) at his amateurish, bumbling, good-hearted best. He is a gourmet cook, intermediate student of both karate and judo, competent sailor, photographer, husband and father (of two young adult sons). He is an M.D. who gave up his practice after only two years when his wife's nephew died in his care. After next studying dentistry, Doc became and remains a well paid, much loved oral surgeon. But he is deep in mid-life crisis, flirting with depression and his profession bores him to tears.
Act One (Chs 1 - 8) ("CONTEMPLATION") of the novel finds Doc moving through (by my count) 16 clues or distinct but related stabs at amateurish detection before he has managed to blunder upon three persons vital to his quest to find out how young Allan Hart had drowned. Doc tries to find the captain of the Penelope to make sure that either the crew had not seen Allan at all or had seen him swim away safely from their converted trawler. To find that captain Doc moves among (1) the desk sergeant of Eastham police department, (2) the harbor master of Wellfleet, (3) Reliable Marine Service in Wellfleet (where superficial repairs to the Penelope had been done, (4) Nauset Beach Coast Guard Station, (5) Commonwealth of Massachusetts Boat Registry in Boston, (6) Boston Coast Guard office. Here, finally, Doc finds the name of the Penelope's registered owner. But the registry address is a nearby motel. And both the owner and the Penelope had disappeared seven weeks earlier.
Doc plods on from clue to clue, picking up a name here, tempted by a red herring there, while the mystery of the Penelope and its owner only deepens.
Act Two (Chs. 9 - 28) ("ACTION") picks up the hitherto sluggish pace. By the end of Chapter 9, Doc has encountered most of the bad guys who have no love for him and his quest. He has survived a late night Gloucester bar fight, black jacking and submersion in Gloucester harbor. He next proceeds to solve the mystery of Alan's drowning after a series of scary, violent encounters with treasure hunters (and treasure concealers), stolen U. S. Army handguns and rifles, arms smugglers dealing with Quebec and Ireland, and a growing number of police: local, state, Federal and Irish.
In Act Three (Chs. 29 -30) AFTERWORD, Doc and some male-bonded buddies prove as greedy for gold as any of the bad guys Doc has been fighting. Doc's feet are made of clay.
There are two quirky features of the plot that stand out in my memory:
--(1) Doc is lucky to have a friendly brother-in-law who is a Lieutenant in Massachusetts State Police and willing to do favors no one else will perform which lead to the identification of "Mr-X" who had coshed and tried to drown Doc in Gloucester.
-- (2) Having bumbled along thus far as a combination Clark Kent, George Babbitt and Homer Simpson, Doc Adams suddenly becomes transformed into Sherlock Holmes plus Superman. When? After surviving immersion in Gloucester harbor at the hands of "Mr.-X." Prepared by nothing in his quest to date to be assaulted, Doc now cunningly decides on the spot simply to vanish for a few days. He will not inform the police but will rely on their lack of curiosity (a constant feature of the novel) to allow the world and his enemies to become convinced that he has been robbed and offed. Not credible.
BOTTOM LINE: BILLINGSGATE SHOAL is a better than average mystery yarn. I cannot, however, but wish that Rick Boyer shared the belief of G. K. Chesterton (of FATHER BROWN and THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY fame) that the best detective story is one that is SHORT. BILLINGSGATE SHOAL's 280 pages strike me as at least 180 pages too many. Padding and didactic asides abound: about the geography of central Boston, praise of personal traits of Poles as distinct from Portuguese, Italians, Irish and others, details of how to kill a lobster humanely, how make a salad, how ethnic fisherman encode their CB-radio messages to tell relatives where the fish are biting and on and on. Charitably, you could regard all the padding as some sort of red herrings, deliberate background static, to make it hard to identify the real clues. You be the judge.