Almost a decade ago, Wilmington author Philip Gerard wrote “Hatteras Light,” a novel about Outer Banks boatmen battling German U-boats in World War II.
Now comes a sequel of sorts: “Dark of the Island,” an action-packed mystery generously flavored with Cape Hatteras salt spray.
The action flashes back and forth between the 1940s and the early 1990s. In the first scene, Nicholas Wolf, a German-American machinist, is inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s speech at an America First rally and decides to return home to defind the Fatherland, leaving a wife and child in Chicago.
Years later, Marlena Wolf gets conflicting news. One report says her husband died in the U.S. Merchant Marine, after his oil tanker was torpedoed and sunk off Cape Hatteras. Other records say he was a corporal in the Wehrmacht, killed while attached to a German U-boat in 1942.
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Flash forward: Marlena’s grandson Nick Wolf, a newspaper reporter turned troubleshooter for a small oil company, heads off to Hatteras Island. His employers have found promising petroleum deposits off the Outer Banks, perhaps bigger than Prudhoe Bay in Alaska.
Nick’s job is to charm the local leadership. It won’t be easy. “No Drill!” signs are sprouting outside half the resort homes. And the opposition isn’t just on paper. Just as he drives over the Bonner Bridge in his company Land Rover, Nick’s brakes fail. Other “accidents” plague local operations.
What’s more, the locals – especially the older ones – tend to react oddly, warily, when they learn Nick’s name.
What follows is a reasonably taut mystery of secrets and lies on a tight little island.
The plot allows Girard to deal with a pithy set of environmental issues and, more subtly, to cope with that elusive quality, Sense of Place. The Hatteras natives all know who they are and where they come from and are enmeshed in a web of family and personal relationships. Some find it suffocating; others, nourishing.
Contrasted to them are the corporate characters like Nick, who rove the globe without putting down roots. Nick has no family, other than his grandma, and no home other than a Chicago apartment that’s more of a motel room and storage locker. Only gradually does he realize he’s missing something.
Girard emphasizes that he has thoroughly fictionalized Hatteras society and even altered the island’s geography a bit for dramatic purposes. His text, nevertheless, has a convincing feel, as he weaves in yarns of “hoi toiders” and the Outer Banks heritage of heroic lifesaving.
A professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Girard spins a yarn like a veteran. The result should find a secure mooring in the realm of “guy fiction” asnd sea stories in particular.
“Dark of the Island”
By Philip Gerard
John F. Blair, 254 pages, paperback