Drake’s Bay is an old school mystery novel, the type of mystery that relies on intelligent plot twists and well-paced revelations to draw the reader along, rather than relentless violence and gore. There is a murder, but Roberts discreetly avoids graphic descriptions of the killing or the body, other than to say that it was a “brutal” murder.
The main character is Ethan Storey, a fifty-something history professor at San Francisco State, who lives on a boat with his longtime girlfriend Kay. Storey is offered the chance to catalogue a rare collection of historical books. After working on the collection for a while, it is revealed that the aim of the project is not just to catalogue and appraise the books, but to find the lost logbooks of Sir Francis Drake, which are supposedly hidden somewhere in the building with the rest of the collection. The logbooks, if found, would be priceless.
However, it becomes clear that the owner of the collection is not the only one interested in finding the logbooks, and after one former researcher of the collection winds up murdered (brutally), Ethan’s job is no longer the straightforward academic assignment it seemed to be. Sean Ballentine, the scion of a powerful academic family involved with UC Berkeley, begins to put pressure on Ethan, to get him to reveal what he knows about the collection. To complicate matters further, Ethan’s lover Kay, an attorney, has taken a job as part of Ballentine’s legal team.
One of the most enjoyable features of Roberts’s novel is that just when Ethan thinks he has the last piece of the puzzle – the truth at last! – something happens that changes everything he thought he knew. And Roberts feeds you these new pieces of information just often enough to keep you reading right through to the end (I read the book in just two sessions, which is no easy feat when you have three kids). His past relationship with his father, who turns out to have been a far more mysterious man than Ethan ever suspected, his difficulties with Kay, and the changes in his own personality that the adventure brings about, are all deftly entwined to make the novel more than just a mystery.
Roberts’s writing is mostly straightforward, well-written prose, with occasional lovely forays into lyricism. For instance, here Ethan tells how his father rarely spoke of his mother, who died when Ethan was very young:
[T]he few times he began a sentence with your mother and I. . . he would look at me obliquely as if searching for her in me, and his confused, inarticulate loving for us both flashed bright and brief as a strobe.
And here, he describes the mercurial San Francisco fog: “This was one of its best moods, when for some reason the fog burned off from below, lifting its skirts to show off a day of warm sun, under a diaphanous white ceiling like a wedding tent.”
Roberts clearly knows a lot about boats and sailing, and writes beautifully about nature and the sea. However, if you don’t know much about sailing or boats, you may find yourself perplexed by passages like, “A few minutes after we cleared the bridge, the wind slapped the trysail full with an enormous pop, and it heeled our tonnage over like a day sailer.” Apparently this is not a bad thing, because in the next paragraph they are still afloat. But don’t ask me exactly what it means. Unfortunately, Roberts either assumes you know, is unwilling to explain it, or both.
Fortunately, these passages are not critical to enjoying the novel and its many twists and turns. Roberts knows his way around a good mystery as well as he knows his way around a boat.