Skeleton Sea

 by Toni Dwiggins


(very good; top 50% of SciThri)

Tech rating (out of 5):


Publication date: August 26, 2015
Category: science-themed mystery/science thriller

Summary (from the book):

A mystery at sea plunges forensic geologists Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws into deadly waters.

When a boat is found deserted off the California coast, it looks to be a simple fishing accident. But there is nothing ordinary going on here. The geologists track the strange incident to an even stranger project. Someone with toxic skills is at work in this sea.

If the lethal project is completed, the outcome will be unstoppable.

ScienceThrillers review:

Skeleton Sea (The Forensic Geology Series) (Volume 4) by Toni Dwiggins is the best book yet in her series of mystery/thrillers featuring a pair of California forensic geologists. For someone like me who loves books in which real science drives the plot, this series is gold. As icing on the cake, Dwiggins’ stories are set in some of my favorite places in California, including (to date) Death Valley National Park, Mammoth Lakes, and now Morro Bay, a beautiful tourist and fishing town on the central coast between Big Sur and Santa Barbara.

Our heroes, Cassie and Walter, are summoned to the coast when a boat is found adrift at sea minus its pilot, and a key piece of evidence is a mineral residue on the boat’s side. They work closely with the local police and an assortment fascinating locals, most of whom could be suspects in the missing man’s death. The tone of the book is a mystery, with some momentum toward a thriller-type climax.

I find the specific plots of Dwiggins’ books to be somewhat confusing in the details, but the characters and scenes and science are so good that I’m willing to ignore the hazy parts. In Skeleton Sea, Dwiggins shows many examples of elegant writing (with science themes, no less!):

I looked out toward the horizon where the wave train started, far out to sea with winds upon the water. It was so primal I sank into some kind of sea memory of that dark water we all came from, which left its gill-slit mark on us for a time in the womb.

Dwiggins did her homework about scuba diving. In two separate underwater scenes, the experience is vivid and suffocating. Here, Cassie gets entangled in Central California kelp:

Blades and supple stalks seemed to caress me. The caresses tightened. Wrapped me. I was no longer moving forward. I kicked furiously. Not a fish. Don’t belong. Breathing hard, bubbles volcanic. If I had become entangled in brush on a hiking trail on a mountain path the way an air-breather should be hiking I could have yelled to my companions up ahead to wait. I couldn’t yell down here or I would drown. All I could do was hum. Theme from Jaws.

Main character Cassie takes on the role of amateur PI on top of her technical work as a geologist and has close encounters with a reclusive rich man who keeps a scanning electron microscope in his cliffside home; a mentally challenged young man who dreams of piloting his own ship; a green-haired slacker with secrets to hide; and a lot of very deadly jellyfish. With superb local color and science throughout, I recommend this book to anyone who has loved a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Other books in the Forensic Geology series by Toni Dwiggins:

Badwater; Volcano Watch; Quicksilver

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