For Throwback Thursday this week I’m looking back at a book that was published in 2016 and was one of the choices for my top reads of 2017, after reading it for Rosie Amber’s Book Review Team.
First of all, I have to say it’s hard to believe this is a debut novel. It’s so good and the quality of the writing is excellent throughout. The story is based in history, the ship, a couple of the main crew members, reason for the wreck and the attempts at rescue, are all fact. Carl Rackman has woven an incredibly imaginative and compelling tale around that tragic event.
Frederick Blake, the County Coroner for Hampshire, arrives in Newport on the Isle of White in February, 1890 to conduct an inquest into the cause of the sinking of the sailing vessel, Irex and, in turn, the fate of the crew and passengers. In Court Room No.1 Blake is welcomed by Mr Peabody, senior magistrate, and Henry Rudd. They are forestalled in their efforts by government interference, the justification for which Blake and Peabody could not fathom, and which left them confused and frustrated. It soon became clear all was not as it had seemed aboard the Irex, and Blake’s inquest becomes more of an investigation. Time is not on their side and it soon becomes apparent someone doesn’t want the truth told.
The Irex’s first attempt at setting sail was defeated by shifting cargo de-stabilising the ship and so forcing the Captain, Will Hutton, to put back into port. And there they stayed to watch for a break in the weather in order to once again attempt to set sail. When the chance finally arrived, the Irex began her ill-fated proposed journey to Rio de Janeiro with, unusually for a cargo ship, three passengers; Major George Barstow, his wife, Elizabeth, Salvation Army missionaries, and Eddy Clarence, unlikable from the first.
With full sail set, the Irex cut a majestic figure as she stretched before a freshening north-westerly breeze, finally cutting her prow through the choppy waves which broke over the deck. The sun had set; the last crimson fires of its passing were cut through by the long slashes of cloud at the horizon that heralded the approach of another weather front.
Hutton felt the confidence high in his own mind as the huge ship, almost 6000 tons of her, rolled easily in the increasing sea. He checked the glass again, noting the pressure had fallen again since their departure. It always gave him an uneasy feeling sailing into an approaching front at night; there were few clues to give advance warning of suddenly changing conditions or incipient storms.
The events on board the Irex unfold alongside the ever more complicated and undermined investigation, through alternate chapters. The mood in both parts of the narrative, but especially so aboard the storm-tossed ship, is convincing and portrayed extremely well. Undercurrents of unease and ill feeling steadily intensify the suspense and tension. I enjoyed the writing and the distinctive characterisations. Will Hutton is a sympathetic character, and who could have guessed the terrible secret of one of the passengers. I liked the investigators more and more as the story progressed, particularly the irrepressible news reporter.
Judging by the wonderfully descriptive writing the research must have been very comprehensive. With vivid imagery throughout the narrative it’s easy to picture the terrifying and traumatic journey on the high seas. I can hardly imagine masts of 200 feet in height, much less think about climbing them. A very intriguing and harrowing story, filled with action, adventure, mystery and murder.
About the Book
In the harsh winter of December 1889, the sailing vessel Irex leaves Scotland bound for Rio de Janeiro. She carries three thousand tons of pig iron and just three passengers for what should be a routine voyage. But Captain Will Hutton discovers that one of his passengers hides a horrifying secret. As the Irex battles relentless storms, Hutton fights battles of his own as he becomes mired in the intrigues of his passengers. Irex is an atmospheric mystery, set in a rich Victorian world, packed with intrigue, twists and unforgettable characters — the gripping first novel by Carl Rackman.