Since most murderers don’t want to be caught, one of their concerns is how to get rid of the bodies of their victims, leaving as little evidence of what happened as possible. That’s where bodies of water can come in very handy. It can take quite a while for a body to wash up on shore, and sometimes the body ends up someplace quite far away from where it was dumped (fans of Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, for instance, will know that that point is mentioned in that novel). What’s more, water washes away quite a lot of evidence, so it’s hard to connect a killer to the crime.
Perhaps that’s why there is so much crime fiction in which the body of at least one victim has washed up on a beach. There are many, many such novels; I’ll just mention a few. I know you’ll think of lots more.
Minette Walters’ The Breaker begins when brothers Paul and Daniel Spender decide to explore the area around Chapman’s Pool near the Dorset Coast. They’re on holiday there with their parents, and are eager for a morning excursion of their own. They discover the body of an unknown woman on the beach and give the alarm. The police, in the form of PC Nick Ingram, begin their investigation. It’s not very long before the victim is identified as Kate Sumner, whose toddler daughter Hannah has been found wandering around the nearby town of Poole. In this case, there are only three really viable suspects. One is the victim’s husband William. Another is a local teacher, Tony Bridges. There’s also Bridges’ roommate Stephen Harding. All three had reasons for wanting Kate dead and, because the body had been in the water, there’s very little evidence as to which one is responsible.
In Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, Vigo police detective Leo Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez investigate the death of a fisherman, Justo Castelo. The body was discovered washed up on shore, and it’s assumed that Castelo committed suicide by drowning. But there are little pieces of evidence that suggest that he was murdered. Because the body was in the water and found washed up, though, there’s not very much that specifically suggests a particular suspect. So Caldas and Estevez look into the victim’s background to find out who might have wanted him dead. Little by little, they trace Castelo’s death to a tragic event from the past.
Jørn Lier Horst’s Chief Inspector Willing Wisting investigates a bizarre case of washed-up bodies in Dregs. The story begins with a left foot in a training shoe that washes up on the beach near the Norwegian town of Stavern. The police start investigating immediately, but they haven’t gotten very far when another foot is discovered. And then there’s another. Still, no bodies have washed up. This eerie case is of course picked up by the press and there’s fear that some mad serial killer might be on the loose. So Wisting and his team have to work quickly to find out who the victims were and how they are connected. In the end, they discover that this isn’t the work of a serial killer at all. Instead, the deaths are all connected to the area’s past.
Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective introduces readers to Edinburgh oceanographer and Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. He’s an expert in wave patterns, and is using his knowledge to try to find out what happened to his grandfather, who was reported lost at sea years earlier. He uses his contacts in the field to follow up on any promising leads, and has managed to identify likely spots where his grandfather might have either landed or been washed up. But there are missing pieces to this puzzle, so in one plot thread, McGill goes to Eilean Isagaich Mor, Great Fishing Island, where his grandparents lived, to try to get some answers. There he finds a much bigger mystery than a case of ‘man overboard.’ At the same time, something else has made him curious. The body of a young woman was discovered off the Argyll coast, and a friend of the victim’s wants McGill’s help in finding out what happened to the woman and who killed her. His knowledge of the way the sea moves proves very helpful in both cases.
There’s also Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel decide to take a getaway holiday at Krabi, on the Thai coast. During their visit, they are especially impressed with their tour guide Pla. So when they find out that she’s been found dead – washed up in a cove – they’re very upset about it. They agree to extend their stay a bit to see if they can find out what happened. The trouble is, though, that there’s not much evidence. The police report suggests that the victim committed suicide. But there are just enough inconsistencies that Keeney isn’t sure that’s what happened. It wouldn’t have been likely to be an accident either, since Pla was an expert swimmer. So Keeney and Patel look into the matter more deeply. In this case, one of the real difficulties is that the water has washed away any clear-cut evidence about who the killer is. It’s not even crystal-clear that this was murder. So the two sleuths have their work cut out for them, as the saying goes.
So does London investigator Catherine Berlin, whom we meet in Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood. She’s been working on a case involving illegal moneylending rackets run by Archie Doyle, and has gotten some useful leads from an informant who calls herself ‘Juliet Bravo.’ When ‘Juliet’s’ body is pulled out of Limehouse Basin, Berlin feels responsible for the woman’s murder. So she decides to find out who killed her. She’s up against several obstacles though. For one thing, the victim never gave her real identity. So finding out who she was will be difficult. And, since the body was in the Basin, there’s little evidence as to what really happened to her. For another, Berlin is suspended for unprofessional conduct relating the case, so she doesn’t have easy access to the reports and other details she needs. Also, she is a registered heroin addict whose legal supplier has just been killed. In a very short time, she’ll be going through withdrawal and be unable to function. So she has to work quickly to find ‘Juliet’s’ killer.
As you can see (but you already know this anyway, I’m sure), it makes sense that there are so many crime novels where the murder victim is somehow dumped into water and left to wash up. I’ve only touched on a few novels that feature this plot point (I know, I know, fans of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Roseanna). Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Otis Redding and Steve Cropper’s (Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.