My review of Steven Mayfield's novel Treasure of the Blue Whale, out on April 1, 2020. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received.
They say a fool and his money are easily parted. As someone who has recently cleared out whole rooms full of evidence which inarguably proves this point, I was very much in the right frame of mind for the new novel from Steven Mayfield, Treasure of the Blue Whale. The story follows ten-year-old Connor O’Halloran, who lives in the coastal town of Tesoro in California. It’s 1934, and the start of the summer holidays. Connor is looking forward to three months without school, when a discovery he makes on the beach changes everything - not just for him, but for the whole town. Connor chances upon a lump of ambergris, the precious substance formed in the bile ducts of whales and highly prized by perfumers as a fixative, and soon discovers that what he has found could be worth a fortune. Upon finding out just how much money could be coming his way, he decides instead to divide it up equally between every household in town. This is not without its complications, however, as Connor will soon discover.
Principal among these complications is the novel’s main antagonist, the menacing and extravagantly wealthy ex-gunrunner Cyrus Dinkle. When he hears of the town’s windfall (which he has been excluded from, owing to his general villainy), he sets about scheming to trick the people of Tesoro out of their bounty, with the aid of his butler, Sergei. Dinkle is reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge and similar larger than life villains, rumours of his criminal connections combining with his general air of misanthropy to make him more than worthy of the distaste and fear the other characters feel for him. It’s a while before we actually meet Dinkle in the novel, but Connor’s descriptions of him before that point serve to set him up as the villain of the piece wonderfully well. The fact that he also holds himself separate from the rest of the town also sets him at odds with everyone else in the rest of the novel too, as themes of community and family are heavily foregrounded throughout. Dinkle’s bachelor lifestyle and unwillingness to interact with the community puts him naturally in opposition to the rest of the town, who are quick to gather round when anything interesting is happening to one of their neighbours. He’s the ideal villain for this scenario. Meanwhile, his butler Sergei terrifies the young Connor - a Russian man of few words, a first glance would paint him as the archetypal chilling servant in a gothic horror, but there’s more to him than meets the eye, and he’s perhaps the most interestingly nuanced character.
The community Dinkle sets himself against couldn’t be more different from him. Tesoro, my research tells me, comes from the Spanish for “Treasure” and it’s apt here - not only is the town itself idyllic, its occupants are richly characterised, wonderfully named and endlessly entertaining, a veritable goldmine of comedic moments. There’s Milton Garwood the Misanthrope, town blacksmith and welder, who is keen to remind people that they can’t tell him what to do at every opportunity, even if it’s perfectly sound advice. Coach Wally Buford, a blowhard who attempts to get himself elected to moderator at every town meeting, described as “full of belly but lean on tact and self-awareness.” Much of the comedy in the novel comes from Connor’s wry observations on these two characters, but the other characters in the novel are no less vividly drawn - my personal favourites were C. Herbert Judson the lawyer, whose handing down of wisdom to Connor and moral compass bring to mind Atticus Finch, and Miss Lizzie Fryberg, the town medical officer who the 91-year-old Connor who is relaying the story to us describes as “one of the strongest, smartest, and most wonderful women” he has ever known. The way the various characters behave when they have their hands on a huge sum of money creates some hilarious scenes, with the townsfolk each trying to outdo one another in their acquisition of ridiculous, expensive status symbols; jewelled toilet seat covers, obviously forged fake documents and even a monkey being some of their more eccentric items. What could very well turn into an ear bashing lecture on the nature of consumerism in the hands of other writers is here just laid out for us to chuckle at and draw our own conclusions from, with minimal hand wringing and anguish.
With Treasure of the Blue Whale, Steven Mayfield has gifted us with a heart-warming depiction of the small-town America of a bygone age, peopled with wonderful characters. It’s reminiscent of the likes of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, with a coming of age tale at its heart but plenty of vignettes scattered throughout to make us laugh, gasp and cheer. You won’t read a more charming book this year.
You can pre-order your copy of Treasure of the Blue Whale here
Currently listening: Violator, Vredehammer
Ollie - BA English and Creative Writing, MA Publishing.