For 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.’