The Sea Detective caught my attention in Booklist because the protagonist, PhD oceanography student Cal McGill, professionally studies "flotsam and jetsam". I have reviewed several books on this subject from Loree Griffin-Burns' YA title Tracking Trash to Donovan Hahn's Moby-Duck, plus I grew up on the water and have been collecting odds and ends from the beach forever.
So I was very excited to read about the exploits of Cal McGill.
Mark Douglas-Home sets the novel in Scotland and it opens with the drowning murder of a young girl from India. Flash forward three years and McGill is doing a little trespassing for an environmental cause. In short order the reader learns that he has a recreational habit of messing with the minds of politicians, he's wicked smart, and his doctorate involves tracking a lot of stuff that falls off ships from containers to oil spills (it's also how he earn cash). Slowly, Douglas-Home brings the story of the dead girl into McGill's radar while also introducing a subplot about his grandfather who was lost at sea during WWII (which explains some of McGill's obsession). There are several bad guys, a very unusual cop who gets a decent amount of attention from the author, some severed feet that wash ashore (unrelated to anything but still interesting - oddly it happens a lot, there was just one in Florida), and a HUGE revelation about McGill's grandfather.
And Cal's ex-wife shows up, but that goes about as well as you expect.
Douglas-Home gives a lot of back story in The Sea Detective and in the early chapters that can get a little hard to follow. The threads of the plot require juggling not only the dead Indian girl but also the local police detective who is dealing with an ass of a superior, McGill and the small town where his family came from who have a lot invested in keeping the truth behind his grandfather's death hidden and even a tabloid reporter trying to work an angle at McGill's expense. I assume this will get a bit easier in future installments as the back story will have been told (it reminded me of the first Maisie Dobbs book in that respect).
But that is just a minor quibble; I loved the setting, I thought Cal McGill was fascinating and utterly unique and the historical mystery blends well with the horrors of the modern story. There is a wry cynicism to McGill that reminds me of Travis McGee but he's also whip smart while not being too jaded, so there's your Spenser. (There can be no higher praise from me then favorable comparisons to these two characters.)
There is a second book that just came out in the series, The Woman Who Walked Into the Sea and I'm really looking forward to reading it. As soon as I get far enough ahead in my columns, etc., I'll be buying a copy. (A third is due this year.)
The Sea Detective reviewed in The Scotsman. And here are a couple of reviews of The Woman Who Walked Into the Sea: The Herald and the Library Review.