The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Drowning

DrowningThe Crime Fiction Alphabet meme continues on our treacherous journey through the alphabet. I’m pleased to say that thus far, we’ve had no casualties – yet. That’s thanks to our tour leader Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, who’s seen to all the arrangements.

Today we’ve arrived at the Hotel D. It’s quite a hotel, with its own fitness center, steam room and pool. That last is actually maybe not such a good thing, as my contribution for today’s stop is drowning.

The thing about drowning is that it can look deceptively like an accident. And it doesn’t really require a lot of specialised knowledge or weaponry. So it’s not surprising that there are a lot of cases of drowning in crime fiction.

Several of Agatha Christie’s works involve drowning. That’s what happens in for instance Hallowe’en Party. Thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds is with a group of young people who are helping to prepare for a Hallowe’en party. She boasts that she’s seen a murder and although just about everyone hushes her up she insists that it’s true. That evening Joyce is drowned in a bucket of water used for a bobbing-for-apples game. Christie’s fictional detective story author Ariadne Oliver was at both the preparations for the party and the party itself, and she is convinced that Joyce was killed because she really did witness a murder and the murderer wanted to keep her quiet. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to visit the village of Woodleigh Common and investigate. He agrees and starts to ask questions. Then there’s another murder. Poirot discovers that both murders are related to some events in the town’s past and a murder that occurred a few years earlier.

Minette Walters’ The Breaker tells the story of the murder of Kate Sumner, whose body is discovered on a beach near Chapman’s Pool in Dorsetshire. Forensics reports show that she was choked, drugged and then drowned. Shortly after her body is discovered, her toddler daughter Hannah is discovered wandering around a nearby town. PC Nick Ingram works with WPC Sandra Griffiths, DI John Galbraith and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who killed Kate Sumner and how Hannah got to the village. Their search for answers leads them to three main suspects: Kate’s husband William; Stephen Harding, an actor with whom Kate had flirted several times; and Harding’s roommate Tony Bridges. This murder turns out to be related to be much more psychological in nature than anything else.

DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate a case of drowning in Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool. Six years earlier Bethany Friend was drowned in the Lake District’s Serpent Pool. At the time, the case was put down as a suicide. But Scarlett has never quite believed that explanation. So she and her team re-open the case. At the same time, Scarlett’s friend and co-worker Fern Larter and her team are investigating two more recent murders. The two compare notes and it’s not long before they determine that the three murderers are related. And so they turn out to be. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett and Larter find out who killed all three victims and what the motive was.

Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Souls Murders also includes a drowning. Political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn gets involved in a case of multiple murders when her daughter Mieka discovers the body of a young girl in a trash bin. The police are just beginning to look into that case when there’s another death. Christy Sinclair is the former girlfriend of Kilbourn’s son Peter. When the two broke up, Kilbourn was only too happy to see Christy go. Then, she suddenly comes back into Peter’s life, going so far as to say they’re back together. One night she drowns in what looks like a tragic boating accident. But her death was quite deliberate. Kilbourn discovers that both deaths are related to a secret from Christy’s past and to some dark truths about some of the characters.

There’s a tragic case of drowning in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence, which is based on true incidents. Born and raised in Victoria, nineteen-year-old Maggie Heffernan was imprisoned in 1900 for the drowning death of her baby son Jacky. The novel is a fictional portrayal of Maggie’s life, her meeting with Jack Hardy, their brief affair and the resulting pregnancy. By the time Maggie realises that she’s pregnant, Jack has left for New South Wales to find work. Jack doesn’t respond when Maggie writes to tell him about her pregnancy, and she knows that her family won’t accept her. So she moves to Melbourne to find work and hopefully trace Jack. She gives birth and after a time, she finally traces Jack. When she does, he claims that she’s crazy and won’t have anything to do with her. With nowhere to go, Maggie searches through Melbourne for a place to stay and is turned away from six different lodging houses. That’s when Jacky’s death occurs. Through diaries, letters and news items, we read of Maggie’s experiences, the trial, and the efforts to free her once she is imprisoned.

And then there’s Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore. In that novel Vigo police detective Leo Caldas and his team investigate the mysterious drowning death of a local fisherman Justo Castelo. The evidence suggests that he committed suicide but there are just a few hints that suggest otherwise. So Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez dig deeper into the case. As they do so, they get to know about Castelo’s background they learn that his death could very well have to do with a 1996 tragedy in which he and two fellow fishermen were the only survivors of a boat tragedy that claimed the life of their captain Antonio Sousa. Bit by bit, Caldas and Estevez find out how Castelo’s drowning is related to the 1996 Sousa drowning.

See what I mean? Drowning happens a lot in crime fiction. Well, now; I’ve finished unpacking. What about a swim? 😉


Filed under Agatha Christie, Domingo Villar, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Minette Walters, Wendy James

24 responses to “The Alphabet in Crime Fiction: Drowning

  1. Good topic. Another Agatha Christie incidence is in And Then There Were None, where the young governess encourages her charge to swim out too far. The man she loves stands to inherit if the young boy doesn’t survive. But it does her no good in the long run….

    • Moira – Thanks – And I’m glad you mentioned And Then There Were None. I was torn between that one and Hallowe’en Party so this way, we get to talk about both of ’em. 🙂

  2. There’s nothing like a suspicious drowning to create the right atmosphere for a good mystery, is there, Margot? Is it really accident…or suicide…or could it be murder? One of Carolyn Hart’s recent books, “Death Comes Silently” includes the apparently accidental drowning of a local businessman, who fell out of his Kayak into freezing water and drowned…or was it really an accident? I’ve seen mysteries where victims drowned in oceans of water and ones where they died in just a few inches of puddle water – but the problems for our fictional investigators remain the same.

    • Les – Oh, that’s so true. Suspicious drownings are just right for so many different kinds of crime novels. And the clever author can even have the drowning turn out to be accidental/suicide after someone is arrested. Or have someone else be responsible for the drowning. Or something else. That’s the beauty of it. And as you say, it doesn’t require a particular kind or amount of water, or special background, weapons or training. So that plot point allows for a lot of flexibility. Thanks for mentioning Carolyn Hart too. I need to spotlight one of her books…

  3. col

    David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars was a recent book I read that fits the bill. It took me a while to get around to reading it but it was an intriguing whodunnit, and a fascinating portrayal of Japanese-American relations in a mixed community during and after WW2.

  4. Margot: One of my most vivid memories of a drowning from Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith. I do not think it will be a spoiler to say it involves a character diving through a hole in the ice in the Bering Sea. It still sends a shiver down my spine when I think of the scene.

    • Bill – Oh, most definitely that scene from Polar Star is really frightening. I’m glad you mentioned that book; there are only room for so many examples in any one post…

  5. I thought of Halloween (is that the one that’s also the ABC mystery?) first. 🙂 Clever to work that in with an apple bob.

    • Elizabeth – I thought that the drowning is worked in very cleverly too in Hallowwe’en Party. I honestly don’t know if a TV version of the story was on the ABC Mystery Movie, but it was one of the Poirot episodes with David Suchet – good memory!

  6. IN LIFE AFTER LIFE, Ursula dies by drowning in on of the narrative. In another one she is saved by a quick thinking man on the beach.

  7. I envy everyone their great memories. I don’t remember any drownings in books. In TV shows or movies, they remain with me because the scene is imprinted in my memory. There was a drowning in an early Homicide episode that I remember. And many bloated bodies in bathtubs that I cannot forget.

    I was interested in Col’s mention of Snow Falling on Cedars because I haven’t read that and it sounds good. And I enjoyed Polar Star quite a lot, but remember very little about the details.

    • Tracy – I think you have an interesting point about the visual effect of TV and film. When you see drownings, they have a real impact. There’s a different sort of memory skill required for drownings when one reads about them because there’s less visual impact.

  8. Drowning is so popular in murder mysteries. And because water can often skew the forensic results, it can often be used to throw off the readers and the detectives.

    • Clarissa – Oh, you’re right about the effect of water on forensics results. It’s much harder to be accurate about forensics details if a body has been in the water for a time.

  9. kathy d.

    I’m surprised that no one has brought up one of the most famous “drowning” scene — with a twist — of all times in the 1955 movie “Diabolique.” I still remember this.
    Nothing I’ve ever read comes close to having the impact of that film.
    And in books, drownings in crime fiction I can’t recall. However, I do think of a classic work of fiction, in which a drowning scene is crucial; that is in Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” This isn’t exactly a mystery, but the book is quite a piece of work — and the drowning is a crucial element of the plot.

    • Kathy – Yes, it is. And I’m glad that you mentioned Diabolique too. It certainly is a powerful drowning scene and it does ‘pack a punch.’ Thanks for bringing it up. It’s another of those cases where a film has that powerful visual effect.

  10. Another interesting topic

  11. I just watched a Dalziel & Pascoe Mystery on television (power of DVDs). This particular story was “Beulah Heights”. Have you ever read this one? I’ve read them all.

    This one involved a drowning, but it was not the main theme. Benny Lightfoot was thought to have killed a young girl years ago, who went missing. Now, a new girl has gone missing, and people think they have seen Benny Lightfoot in the neighborhood, once more. After a complicated investigation, Dalziel discovers that Benny emphatically didn’t kill anyone … and was murdered by the father of the first young girl. HOW he was murdered was bone-chilling. The father chained him to the wall of the basement and went away for two days. There was a rain, and the basement was flooded. Benny was drowned because he couldn’t get free. Dalziel discovered his skelaton still chained to that basement wall.


    P.S. I really like your Alphabet Blogs… 🙂

    On 4/28/13, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

    • I’m glad you mentioned On Beulah Height. For one thing, this is really aterrific series I think. For another, you’re quite right that a drowning features strongly in the novel. It is indeed a pretty nasty way to die…
      Thanks for the kind words, too. I’m enjoying being a part of this meme.

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