Monday, June 7, 2010

I'm Sailing Away*

In crime fiction, the right setting can add quite a bit to a story. Each different kind of setting can add a unique kind of suspense, too. For instance, the too-peaceful neighborhood setting can add to the suspense because the reader knows that there’s more going on in the neighborhood than appears on the surface. One setting that can really lend itself well to a good crime story is the sea. For one thing, most murderers don’t want to be caught, and the sea is a very convenient place to dispose of a body. Also, all sorts of disparate people travel by sea, so such a trip is a convenient “cover” for a murderer who doesn’t want there to be an obvious link with the victim. And then there’s the level of tension and suspense that comes with the weather and the very fact of being at sea, with all of its risks.

Agatha Christie used ship and “sea” settings for a few of her novels. One of them is The Man in the Brown Suit. In that novel, Anne Beddingfield has recently been left an orphan when her father died. She accepts the kind offer of her father’s solicitor to stay with him and his family, but she soon realizes that she wants adventure. Anne gets more than she bargained for one day when she witnesses a tube accident in which a man falls to his death on the tracks. A paper falls out of his pocket, and Anne retrieves it. At first, the paper doesn’t make sense to Anne, but she soon learns that it refers to the sailing date of the Kilmorden Castle, which is bound for Cape Town. On impulse, Anne books passage on the ship. On board, Anne gets into several adventures. Late one night, a wounded man stumbles into her cabin, having just been stabbed. She tries to help him as best she can, but as soon as the wound is dressed, he leaves. Then, a roll of film is dropped into the cabin of one of Anne’s shipboard friends, Suzanne Blair. When the two women open the can, they find it full of uncut diamonds. Then, Anne herself is attacked. When the ship finally docks in Cape Town, Anne and Suzanne work together with the somewhat mysterious Harry Rayburn to find out what the connection is between the diamonds, the dead man, and the strange events on the ship.

In Death on the Nile (which, by the way, shares a character with The Man in the Brown Suit – Colonel Race), Hercule Poirot investigates a series of deaths. Beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgway Doyle and her husband, Simon, are on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same cruise, becomes concerned when he finds that Jacqueline de Bellefort, Linnet’s former best friend, is also on the cruise. Simon Doyle is Jacqueline’s former fiancĂ©, who was swept off his feet, so to speak, when he met Linnet. Now, Jacqueline’s following them everywhere, doing her best to un-nerve the couple. Matters come to a head one night when Jacqueline has too much to drink and ends up shooting Simon in the leg. In the commotion that follows, no-one realizes that there’s been another murder, too – Linnet Doyle’s been shot. Jackueline is the most likely suspect, but she’s got a cast-iron alibi, so Poirot and Colonel Race have to look elsewhere. At first, the shooting looks like a crime of passion, or perhaps one of panic, since her valuable pearls were stolen. But Poirot and Race find that really, Linnet Doyle’s death was carefully planned.

For a murderer, one of the most convenient things about the sea is that it’s easy to hide a body there while the murderer escapes. And, since people do drown in the sea, it can be a murder weapon. Also when a body washes up on shore, it can be very difficult to connect the killer with the body. And the sea has a way of tampering with forensic evidence, so it can also be difficult to establish time of death and other facts that could point to the killer.

All of these factors help, at first, to “hide” the killer of thirty-one-year-old Kate Sumner in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. When Kate’s nude body washes up on the Dorset shore, she’s not identified at first. Then, her almost-three-year-old daughter, Hannah, is found wandering the streets of the nearby town. Eventually, Kate and Hannah are identified, and forensic evidence shows that Kate drowned. First, though, she’d been drugged, raped and choked. As we learn more about Kate’s life, we find only three suspects: her husband, William, actor Steven Harding, and Tony Bridges, a local teacher. Constable Nick Ingram and local stableyard owner Maggie Jenner work together to find out who killed Kate and why. What they find is that Kate wasn’t what she seemed; neither were the three men whose were deeply involved in her life. The solution of this case is as much psychological as it is anything else.

In Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, former Soviet special investigator Arkady Renko has been removed from his position in Moscow and exiled to the fishing ship The Polar Star. He’s just as well pleased to be free of the burden of his former job, as he’s sick to death of the corruption and the abuse of power that are inherent in so many police investigations. Then one day, he’s drawn back into investigating when the body of Zina Patiashvili appears in a fishing net, along with the day’s catch of fish. Zina Patiashvili was a galley worker, and at the outset, there seems no reason for murdering her. But, as Renko himself puts it:

“Let’s say that Zina Patiashvilli did not stab, beat and throw herself overboard.”

As Renko very reluctantly looks into the case, he finds that Zina wasn’t just a galley worker. She was a smuggler and blackmailer with a notorious reputation. The closer that Renko gets to the truth about who killed Zina Patiashvili and why, the more in danger he is himself. In the end, though, Renko is able to uncover the dark secrets on this boat, and find out who the murderer is.

Carole Sutton’s Ferryman is also a story of murder at sea, so to speak. In that novel, Steve Pengelly has decided to move to the Isle of Guernsey to start what he thinks will be a new life. He buys a beautiful thirty-foot sailboat, and prepares to enjoy life on Guernsey. Then, he gets involved with Angela DuPont, the woman who told him about the boat in the first place. At first, all’s well. Then, Steve finds out that Angela has been using him until she finds a wealthier, more promising “catch.” When Steve discovers this, he breaks up with Angela, and she mysteriously disappears. DI Alec Grimstone thinks Steve Pengelly has murdered Angela DuPont, and there’s evidence to support him. Blood and other forensic evidence is found on Steve’s boat, and there is the fact that he’d had a breakup with Angela right before her disappearance. Pengelly is duly convicted and sentenced to prison. He’s been in prison for two years when Angela’s body washes ashore at Cornwall’s Fal Estuary. What’s strange about this is that forensic evidence shows that Angela has only been dead for a short time. This means that Steve Pengelly couldn’t have murdered her, so DI Grimstone has to admit he’s been wrong. Pengelly is released from prison and wants nothing more to do with the case, but he’s not to get his wish. Veryan Pascoe is trying to find out what happened to her sister, who’s also gone missing. She persuades a very reluctant Pengelly to help her, since she thinks the same person also killed Angela DuPont. Meanwhile, Grimstone also re-opens the case, and in parallel fashion, he, Pengelly and Pascoe get to the truth of the matter.

There are, of course, lots of other crime fiction stories in which bodies wash up on shore or are thrown overboard. The “sea” setting can add suspense, mystery, and sometimes, danger to the story, so it’s no wonder that it’s such an effective context for a crime novel. Which are your favorite “seaworthy” crime novels?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the first line from Styx’s Come Sail Away.


  1. Firstly, just let me say, for the record, that I consider it a crime against humanity that I don't own a boat. I should be the owner of a nice large sailboat with spacious sleeping quarters. Also a crew to sail the damn thing would be useful. I've already chosen a name. Anyway...

    I've always thought mysteries work wonderfully on a ship, simply because everyone is stuck in one place. It's the old 'who threw who out of the rowboat' game. Yes, you can strand people in blizzards, or on islands, or on mountain tops if you desire, but there's always going to be a romance about a boat.

    I actually wrote a short mystery (about 5,000 words) taking place on a ship. Drat. Now I've remembered it, I should get it out of the drawer and finish editing it.

    Another excellent post, Margot. You can share my sailboat.

  2. Elspeth - Why, thank you : ). I would be honoured to share your boat. And the elegant staff you hire to sail it, stock it, keep it in repair, and so on.

    You're so right, too; there is most definitely something romanatic about a boat. It's exotic, it's mysterious and yes, you've got lots of people in one place. Plenty of opportunity for mayhem, if one's a mystery writer. We are a strange bunch, arent't we? Speaking of which....I hope you do edit and do something with that manuscript. You write very well, and I'd love to read it.

    And you deserve a beautiful saiilboat.

  3. I think because Death on the Nile is one of my favourite books of all time I do enjoy books set on cruises. I can't think of too many at the moment though I know I've read several. Dead Man Docking by Mary Daheim is a good fun romp although in this book the cruise liner never leaves dock due to the dead body stuffed inside a piano.

    I also like Carl Hiassen's Skinny Dip in which a woman is thrown overboard from a cruise ship by her husband but she lives to take her revenge. It's great fun.

  4. Bernadette - Isn't Death on the Nile a terrific book? It's one of my favorite books, too.

    I love the premise of Skinny Dip, too. It's always interesting to find out what happens to a murderer when the would-be-victim gets a chance to turn the tables. I need to try my hand at one of those plots some time... ; ).

  5. Margot-Death on the NIle is definitely my favourite Christie.
    Another superb book I can recommend is Boris Akunin's Murder on the Leviathan, which is a bit like something Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie might have written in cooperation, with some input from Ian Fleming.

  6. Norman - Thanks for recommending Murder on the Leviathan. I very much like the way you describe the book, too. Somehow, I really can see those writers working together. How interesting..... I'm going to have to try to find that one.

  7. One of my favorite novels that takes place near the sea is Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. The sea really gave the book a haunting setting.


  8. Clarissa - Oh, you are right. Rebecca is a wonderful novel, and the sea is almost a character in it, isn't it?

  9. Great post, as always, Margot. Do you remember that "original" of the crime genre (well, spy thriller), Riddle of the Sands? Fits quite well into the excellent post here.

  10. Maxine - Thank you : ). And thanks for reminding me of Riddle of the Sands. I'd forgotten about that one (that's always the way when I write posts - I forget really fine examples). You're right; it really is a good "seaworthy" novel. A yacht, secret espionage plans, the whole works. Folks, I recommend it : ).

  11. An obscure but quite enjoyable Golden Age whodunit is Obelists at Sea by C.Daly King, set on a liner and replete with deck plans and a 'clue finder'. Not exactly a realistic novel, but good fun.

  12. Martin - Oh, thank you for the recommendation : ). I appreciate it. I confess I'm not familiar with this title, so I'm going to have to look for that one. It sounds like a lot of fun, and realism is sometimes not all it's made out to be : ).