Drake’s Bay, by T.A. Roberts, The Permanent Press (www.thepermanentpress.com), 2010, 239 pages, $28.00
Although it may seem odd to find a mystery novel reviewed here on the hallowed pages of (bio)accumulation – a site geared first and foremost to the history and natural history of the San Francisco Bay Area – Thomas A. Roberts’ Drake’s Bay is anything but an exception to the rule. To begin with, Roberts is a Bay Area wildlife biologist, a fact that percolates throughout his prose time and again. But more importantly, Drake’s Bay takes on the legend of Sir Francis Drake’s brass plate, the marker purportedly left by the explorer to mark where Drake laid English claim to the United States in the name of Queen Elizabeth I after his warship The Golden Hinde took harbor along the California coast in 1579.
If ever there was a local legend whose tangled web begged treatment in a novel, the mystery surrounding Drake’s plate has long been ripe for the picking. And Roberts picks up where history left off – that the supposed Drake’s plate found in 1936 was part of a hoax deftly executed and all too eagerly accepted by experts at the University of California, Berkeley’s The Bancroft Library (The forgery was never fully realized until 2002; see the 2002 California History journal article preview and the 2003 U.C. Berkeley press release) – and introduces a few plot twists of his own.
Enter Ethan Storey, a San Francisco State professor of history whose only ties are to the 50ft. schooner inherited from his father (the Drake – coincidence?) and his girlfriend, lawyer Kay O’Toole. But when Storey stumbles into an opportunity to index a private library of rare books in the Berkeley Hills that may harbor Drake’s lost logbooks – the key to proving which, if any, brass plate is genuine or a forgery – he finds himself an unwitting pawn in a cliffhanger that spans the Bay, from the backwaters of the Delta to the storm-churned swells beyond the Golden Gate, against players who would kill to solve this centuries old mystery.
Roberts is careful to set the pace and the mood with few words. Even so, he still manages to distill the spirit of the Bay Area through Storey’s unconscious familiarity with the land: “In returning from Napa to the Bay Area, one has to reach a decision as to whether to head for Mount Tamalpais or Mount Diablo–San Francisco or the East Bay.” Storey (and Roberts) betray an almost visceral relationship with the world they inhabit, as though they could close their eyes and move through the hills or across the water like it was Braille. True to his livelihood as a wildlife biologist, Roberts also uses the natural world to frame Storey’s, setting the beleaguered professor adrift “on the dock… watch[ing] the red-winged blackbirds arranging their world of cattails and controversy…” as Storey tries to put the pieces of his own life back together.
Roberts has had years to perfect his craft, having authored several mysteries over the years (Shy Moon, The Heart of the Dog, Beyond Saru), as well as two collections of natural history essays (Adventures in Conservation and Painting the Cows) canvassing his years as a wildlife biologist in the west and around the globe. But once you set foot on Storey’s craft, the Drake will lead you on a high-seas white-knuckle chase befitting Drake himself.