By the Book: Of ducks, detectives and whaling disasters

03/02/2012 12:52 PM |

On Jan. 10, 1992, 500 miles south of Attu Island, a cargo ship labored in a storm that was generating 35-foot waves. As the ship pitched and yawed 12 huge containers were hurled over the side; inside one were 28,800 bathtub toys. As the containers smashed apart, as the cartons within disintegrated, as the plastic bubbles separated from the cardboard backing, the encased turtles, beavers, frogs and, yes, rubber duckies floated to the surface and began their journey. It made for captivating headlines and charming articles. Our imaginations were piqued, we remembered Ernie singing, “Rubber Duckie, I’m awfully fond of you.” (Who among us hasn’t stood staring into the window of the toy store in Greenport?)

Years passed and as reports began drifting in about current-bound toys showing up in unlikely places (Kennebunkport, Scotland), Donovan Hohn got hooked, embarked on a watery crusade and wound up writing ‘Moby Duck.’ Beyond the excitement of duck hunting, Hohn learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a Texas-size area in the Pacific where currents convene and circle endlessly, and where multiple tons of manmade stuff, much of it made of death-defying plastic, whirl and swirl.

Over the course of his adventure Hohn visited toy factories in China, sailed on an enormous container ship from South Korea to Seattle and met up with ecologists, chemical engineers and oceanographers — all concerned about the health of our oceans. One remarks, “Everyone says they simply threw this stuff out. The problem is there’s no ‘out’ any more.” A green book about yellow ducks; a thoughtful book with an amusing backdrop about a very un-amusing situation.

Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie — ex-soldier, ex-policeman, ex-private eye — joins Nero Wolfe and Archie, Travis McGee, Spenser and Hawk, and Lucas Davenport in my squad of elite crime stoppers, all with that tough-guy, wise-guy, straight-shooting approach.

‘Started Early, Took My Dog’ is the fourth Brodie novel; the first was ‘Case Histories.’ Atkinson has a rare gift. By about page 77 I’m beginning to lose hope, sure I’ll never figure out who all these people are and what they could possibly have in common. And Brodie is stumbling around in the pages, too, seemingly as lost as I am. Then Atkinson sheds a ray of light. One. And Brodie thinks “Hmm” and I think “Ahhh” and the fun gets funner as things begin to knit together. Brodie is philosophically amusing, or maybe amusingly philosophical:

“ ‘I don’t understand,’ Jackson said. He wondered why he didn’t just get that sentence tattooed on his forehead.”

A really good character in four really good books. They’re loosely connected, so start with “Case Histories.”

‘Leviathan’ by Eric Dolin is a history of whaling in America. I’m only halfway through; it’s tougher going than reading about fictional murders. I’ve visited Sag Harbor, Mystic and New Bedford and read the grim saga of the whaleship Essex, but it’s fascinating to follow the life and death of this enormous American industry, an economic backbone until petroleum took over our lamp-lighting and lubrication.

Oil, plastic, plastic, oil — did they save the country or are they sinking it?

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected]