And I Go Where the Ocean is Deep*

BoatsFor a lot of people there’s something exciting about boats and being on boats. It may be the lure of adventure or it may be the connection with the sea. And of course, there’s the reality that for plenty of people, boats represent their livelihood. Whatever the reason is, we seem to have a fascination with boats and ships. And if you think about it, boats and ships, with their dangers, legends and so on make very effective contexts for crime fiction novels. If you add to that the fact of disparate people being brought together, as can happen on a boat, it’s easy to see how boats and ships could figure into crime fiction. Of course, one post isn’t nearly enough space for me to mention all of the novels where boats and ships figure into the plot, but here are a few to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, newlyweds Linnet and Simon Doyle are on their honeymoon trip – a cruise of the Nile. On the second night of the journey Linnet is shot. The first suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was before he met Linnet. But it’s soon proven that Jackie could not have committed the crime. Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race are on the same cruise and work together to find out who the murderer is. In this novel, it isn’t the actual boating or the ship itself that figures into the crime. Rather, Christie looks at the interactions of the different personalities who are on the same ship at the same time.

So does Ngaio Marsh in A Clutch of Constables. Painter and sculptor Agatha Troy decides to take a cruise on the Zodiac, but she soon finds that this isn’t going to be the relaxing and enjoyable trip she’d planned. First, one of the passengers is left behind and is later found murdered. Then another passenger is drowned. In the meantime and possibly related to the murders, Troy finds that an international art forger known only as the Jampot may very well be among those aboard the ship. As Troy gets more deeply involved in the mystery, she writes letters to her husband Inspector Roderick Alleyn and in them she tells him what’s happened. In an interesting plot strategy, Alleyn uses those letters to share the crimes and their solutions to a group of students in a class he’s teaching.

John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee lives aboard a boat called The Busted Flush. As we learn in The Deep Blue Goodbye, he won the boat in a poker game (hence its name). McGee calls himself a ‘salvage consultant.’ What that really means is that he helps people recover what’s been stolen from them. For instance, in The Deep Blue Goodbye he agrees to track down something that was stolen from his client Catherine Kerr by the father of her son Davie. The big challenge at first is that Kerr’s not even sure what was stolen. McGee finds out what was taken and is able to track down both the stolen property and the thief. McGee takes in payment half of whatever is recovered for his clients and they are usually more than grateful to pay his fee. What’s interesting is that McGee could probably afford to live in a house if he wanted, but he doesn’t. He prefers his boat and his life on the sea. In several places in that novel (and in the other novels in the series too), we see McGee working on his boat. He paints, cleans, makes repairs and so on. That side of him adds depth to the character.

Carole Sutton comes from a family of boat builders, so it’s only natural that her love of boats should come through in her novels. In Ferryman, we meet Steve Pengelly, who moves to Guernsey to start over, as the saying goes. There, he meets Angela DuPont, who connects him with the seller of a beautiful thirty-eight-foot sailboat that Pengelly happily buys. His new life falls apart when Angela disappears and he is arrested and tried for her murder. There’s forensic evidence against him too and he is in fact convicted and imprisoned. Then, two years later, Angela’s body washes ashore. What’s shocking is that it’s proven that she died only a short time before her body was discovered. This means that Pengelly wasn’t guilty of the crime. Now DI Alan Grimstone has to go back to the beginning to find out the truth of the matter.

In Sutton’s And the Devil Laughed, DS Hannah Ford returns to work after taking some leave for post-traumatic stress. She’s assigned to go to Draper’s Wharf on Australia’s Parramata River to investigate possible drugs activity in the area. Posing as a journalist she settles in and begins to get a sense of the place. She soon discovers that there’s been a recent tragedy in town. Local barmaid Victoria Brown was raped and murdered. Her killer hasn’t been caught, so Ford begins to ask questions about the case even though she hasn’t been officially asked to do so. Part of the reason for her interest in the case comes from her desire to prove herself fit for work. Another part comes from the fact that she was distantly related to the victim. As Ford investigates this case as well as the drugs smuggling, we get a real feel for the local boating and boat-building culture.

Boats have long been used for smuggling of course, and we get a real sense of that in Jeffrey Stone’s Play Him Again, which takes place in 1920’s Los Angeles during the years of Prohibition in the U.S.  In that novel we meet Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson, who makes his money smuggling alcohol on his boat The River Belle. His dream is to become a film-maker in the newly-developing Hollywood scene and at the moment, he’s using his smuggling income until he can. When his friend Danny is murdered, Hud decides to find out who the murderer is. He soon finds out though that he’s up against several forces. First, there are rival smuggling groups and a large criminal gang that’s moving into the area. There’s also the fact that the smuggling Hud’s doing is illegal, so the police aren’t going to be co-operative. But Hud keeps looking for answers and he discovers how Danny’s murder is related to the ‘rum-running’ and to the developing film industry. There are plenty of scenes aboard The River Belle in this novel, so we get a chance to see what a boat that’s been refitted for smuggling is like.

Of course more than just about anything else, boats are used for fishing and that’s the focus of Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore. Vigo police inspector Leo Caldas and his team are called in when the body of local fisherman Justo Castelo is discovered. At first it looks as though he committed suicide. But little clues suggest that he might have been murdered, so Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez look into the case further. As they find out about Castelo’s background, they discover that Castelo’s murder may be related to a 1996 tragedy in which Castelo and two other fishermen José Arias and Marcos Valverde nearly drowned while they were aboard a fishing vessel. Their captain Antonio Sousa did drown and none of the survivors has been the same since then. Caldas and Estevez have to learn exactly what happened that night to get to the truth about Castelo’s death. This novel shows readers what the fisherman’s life is like, from early-morning fish markets to sudden and terrible storms to building and maintaining fishing boats.

We also see the fishing life depicted in Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide. Alan ‘Tug’ Bretton is the captain of Sea Mistress, a trawler based in Brisbane. He’s accused of murdering Ewan McKay, the deckhand from another boat. Bretton claims that he’s innocent, but all of the evidence is against him. There’s also a possibility that Bretton and Sea Mistress may be connected to the drugs trade. Bretton’s daughter Samantha ‘Sam’ believes her father is innocent and she wants to find out who killed McKay. Besides, if the family-owned trawler doesn’t go out to sea, the ship may be lost to creditors. So Bretton reluctantly turns the skipper position over to his daughter. Sam begins both to start the fishing season and to try to find out who killed Ewan McKay. What she doesn’t know is that Chayse Jarrett, the deckhand she’s just hired, is an undercover cop who’s been assigned to the McKay murder too. As the two of them, first separately and later together, investigate the murder, we also see what it’s like to live on and operate a fishing trawler.

Whether they’re used for work, sport, relaxation or smuggling, boats and boating have been an essential part of our lives for millennia. Their fascination still lures a lot of people. Do you see the appeal? I know I’ve probably not mentioned the boat-related crime novels you like best because there’s not enough space to mention them all. So now it’s your turn. Which gaps have I left?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Downeaster ‘Alexa.’


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carole Sutton, Domingo Villar, Jeffrey Stone, John D. MacDonald, Ngaio Marsh, Sandy Curtis

27 responses to “And I Go Where the Ocean is Deep*

  1. Personally boats and being on the water is not something I enjoy. But all these books sound really good. The Agatha Christie and the John D. MacDonald I am familiar with, of course, but the rest are all new to me.

  2. I love boats but my husband gets seasick crossing the Channel so my dreams of a Mediterranean cruise will be forever unfulfilled. I love ‘Death on the Nile’ and the whole idea of dressing up for dinner. So romantic and an ideal setting for a murder.

    • Sarah – Oh, I know what you mean. It really is an elegant thing, dressing for dinner that way. And you’re absolutely right that a cruise ship is a terrific setting for a murder. I like this novel for that and for the disparate characters on the ship. Christie isn’t known for her character depth but she does a solid job of it here.
      And I’m sorry to hear you won’t get to take that dream Mediterranean cruise you so richly deserve; I understand they can be amazing experiences.

  3. “Clutch of Constables” is one of my favorite Marsh books, Margot – but she wrote another one with a nautical theme, “Singing in the Shrouds,” in which Alleyn winds up chasing after a serial killer (yikes) who apparently is on board a luxury cruise ship. You’re right – it is a great setting for a murder. Sorry you mentioned it, as I’m about to head out for a few days vacation…on board a cruise ship!

    • Les – In all seriousness, I hope you have a fantastic time. It sounds great! And thanks for reminding me of Singing in the Shrouds. I’d almost completely forgotten about that one so I’m glad you filled in that gap. Folks, don’t worry; it’s by no means your typical ‘crazed serial killer’ novel…

  4. I love Death on the Nile, and ever since I first read it have always wanted to go on a cruise down the Nile, but have never managed it. I wanted to go for my honeymoon, but (unlike Linnet Doyle, the richest girl in the world) we had no money. (Unlike her, I am still married!) Of course the murder plot in it is totally unconvincing – no-one would plan a murder that way – but everything else is superb, and actually I find the (briefly-sketched) relationship between Poirot and the murderer to be very affecting, and the final pages and incidents to be sad and gripping.

    • Moira – Oh, wouldn’t it be absolutely lovely to take a Nile cruise? I’d love it myself. But when I was a newlywed, we had no money either. Maybe someday… You know, I’m glad you brought up the relationship between Poirot and the murderer and those last few pages. That murderer has stayed with me because of the way the whole thing was drawn (not, I mean, the murder itself, but that relationship). It is really very sad…

      • I had to get the book out to re-read after this! It was the perfect thing to read on a cold January night in England in fact…

        • Moira – I can’t blame you one tiny bit. In fact, sometime I ought to do a post on books like that, both chilly ‘wintery’ books for those unbearably hot days and warm, even ‘tropical’ books for those bitter and dark winter nights. Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Death on the Nile is one of my favourite AC novels. The fact that they can’t get off the boat and that all the suspects are in one place makes it easy. Also, there is a lot of places to hide. I recently read a novel by Shirley Wells–Dead Calm– that is set on a cruise ship and it was fantastic.

    • Clarissa – I agree that the fact that the passengers are all in the same place and can’t leave does add to the suspense. And you know I hadn’t thought about it, but there are a whole lot of places where a person could hide on a ship… Thanks also for the recommendation of Deadly Calm. I heard that was a good one.

  6. Margot: If Sarah wants to take a fabulous virtual cruise in the Mediterrean she should read Tapas on the Ramblas by Anthony Bidulka. His sleuth, Russell Quant, has a great cruise on the Dorothy. (With regard to sea sickness I have a tender stomach and have never felt queasy on a cruise ship. They are massive vessels with stablizers.)

    Last fall Sharon and I were on a cruise in Northern Europe on the Oceania ship, Marina. I was pleasantly suprised to find a library with several thousand contemporary books and wonderful leather armchairs. Around the corner from the library was a free coffee shop. While Sharon indulged in speciality coffees I enjoyed the books. It is a wonder I got ashore.

    • Bill – Yes, indeed, Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas is a terrific cruise ship novel with some memorable characters. Do check it out, folks, if you get the chance. It’s a solid mystery too.
      And it sounds as though you had a fabulous time on your cruise and I’m glad. Today’s ships are outfitted with so many different kinds of things to do that I’m not surprised you found a great library, complete with leather chairs. Some cruise ships have rock climbing, tennis and a lot more. And oh, yes, one can go ashore, too….

  7. Sigh. I have always wanted to live on a boat. Still would like to one day. If I didn’t have to work for a living. And have somewhere to put all my books (though that is less of an issue now with eReaders)

    I find it hard to go past good old Death on the Nile…the book that got me hooked on crime fiction AND travel way back when. Though my own trip down the Nile was not on such a luxurious craft (we took a felucca which is basically a piece of board with a sail) but I adored it – no dead bodies though.

    My most recent read featuring a boat was Kathryn Fox’s Gold Grave – it took place on a luxury cruise liner – not the kind of trip the tour guides would be talking about though with dead bodies mounting up. Good yarn though.

    • Bernadette – I don’t blame you for wanting to live on a boat. That was something I always loved about John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stories. Of course, as you say, it does make it a bit harder to store things, and getting to a job would be another challenge. There are people who do it, though and I can see why.
      I can remember the first time I read Death on the Nile and thought about what a trip to Egypt would be like. I’ve not got there yet but it sounds as though your trip down Nile was amazing. I’ve seen pictures of feluccas – I’ll bet you had quite an adventure on the one you took even if there were no dead bodies.
      I remember your terrific review of Cold Grave. It sounds like a great story even if not exactly a dream vacation. I’ve been wanting to read that one since you posted about it.

  8. Ms. Kinberg, I’d be surprised if you left any gaps in this post at all. What an excellent recollection of crime-fiction on the high seas. I can’t add to the list at the moment but a couple of years ago I read Tom Clancy’s cold-war thriller ‘The Hunt for Red October’ about the hunt for a Russian U-boat that’s defecting to the US. Almost the entire story plays out under the Atlantic. The film version had Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin in the lead with Baldwin playing Clancy’s hero, CIA intel op Jack Ryan.

    I agree boats provide a fine setting for crime-fiction. Along with the sea, they lend a charm to a mystery. Writers can weave fascinating tales around boats without their plots sounding repetitive.

    • Prashant – That’s very kind of you – thank you. And thanks for the reminder of The Hunt for Red October. That’s definitely a solid boat-based thriller. And of course, the setting – where it’s harder to escape, adds to the suspense. And you’ve put me in mind of Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, which is also a boat-based thriller that features Smith’s Arkady Renko. In that case too, the suspense is increased (well, I think so anyway) by the setting.
      You’re right too that the boat or ship setting can allow the writer all kinds of options so that the story won’t sound repetitive. With some novels there are a lot of characters, so there are opportunities for character interactions. With other novels the author can use weather changes to add to a story. Either way, boats really are, I think, an effective setting for stories.

  9. I hadn’t even thought about how many times boats crop up in crime fiction! Good post. I remember plenty of houseboats in British novels–maybe Elizabeth George books? Or possibly Caroline Graham.

    I’m ashamed to say that sometimes I feel a little quesy on boats…big boats, not the small ones (for some bizarre reason…)

    • Elizabeth – You know, when you come to think of it, there are a lot of mysteries with houseboats. You’ve put me in mind of Peter Lovesey’s Bloodhounds, for instance, which takes place on a houseboat. There are others, too. I think it’s because that lifestyle has a lot of appeal even if it’s not as easy in real life as it seems in books and film.
      And it’s amazing the odd things that make us feel queasy. Some people can handle sailboats and canoes and tiny boats easily but feel queasy on a big boat. For others it’s exactly the opposite. And you’re not alone: Hercule Poirot has never been entirely comfortable on any size boat.

  10. Margot, interesting post. I noticed your mention of Travis McGee- my series is a direct descendant of McDonald’s McGee, and I pay homage to the master. You mention Play Him Again, a rumrunner, and my story published in Short.Story-Me, “Bootleggers” is such a tale, off the coast of Maine.

    • Dale – Thanks for the kind words and the link to your story. Maine was certainly the site of plenty of ‘rum-running’ and boats have of course been part of the ‘Down East’ life for centuries. I’ll definitely check your story out.

  11. I still think I’m a little in love with Travis McGee…or at least his lifestyle. I wish I could have tried living on a houseboat for a while, but my dislike for Florida’s heat and humidity (and bugs) and my fear of hurricanes probably would have made it a very short-lived experiment.

    • Pat – I know what you mean! Doesn’t McGee have a great lifestyle? But yes, those bugs and the hurricanes and the humidity? Not things I relish. Oh, well, I’ve not yet heard of a place where nothing is ever a problem…

  12. Pingback: Pack Up, Let’s Fly Away* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

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