Watching the Tide Roll Away*

Bodies Washed UpSince 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Annie Hauxwell, Domingo Villar, Jørn Lier Horst, Maj Sjöwall, Mark Douglas-Home, Minette Walters, Per Wahlöö

32 responses to “Watching the Tide Roll Away*

  1. Thanks for this, Margot, very interesting. Dorothy L Sayers’s Have His Carcase has a twist on this, when Harriet Vane discovers a body on the beach, which is taken by the tide while she is going for help. And there is a Miss Marple story in which a body is washed ashore, too. Josephine Tey’s A Shilling for Candles begins with a body on a beach. It is a clearly a scenario with so many possibilities.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Christine. Also thanks for reminding me of the Tey; that’s another terrific example of the many ways that washed-up bodies can add to a crime plot. I’m glad you mentioned the Sayers, too. I actually almost put that one in this post, but didn’t want to go on too long. So I’m very glad you filled in that gap. As you say, so many possibilities…

      • I was going to mention Have His Carcase, because I’ve just finished reading it. The body is washed away by the tide after Harriet found it is does the body found by Carole in The Body on the Beach by Simon Brett, The difference is that Harriet had taken photos but the police didn’t believe Carole – just shows you should always have a camera handy – just saying 🙂

        • That’s quite true, Margaret 🙂 – It’s always wise to have a camera. And I’m glad you’ve mentioned Have His Carcase. It’s a good example of how dumping a body in water can make it harder for a killer to be caught. And that’s true even if the victim is identified fairly promptly.

  2. Col

    Looking forward to The Sea-Detective when I get there.

    • It’s a good ‘un, Col, I think. I hope you’ll like it.

    • Sorry to jump in, but just saw your comment, and me too, Col. Brilliant premise, and a fascinating subject to study – many have done it over a lifetime of living in an area. They use it here when they’re unsure where a boat could’ve gone down.

      • No worries, Crimeworm; jump in any time! It’s fascinating to think of how much wisdom you an get about tides and so on just from living in an area. And with some oceanographic knowledge, too, a person can be even more knowledgeable.

  3. I was thinking of Sharon Bolton and “A Dark And Twisted Tide” – from what I recall, all the victims end up dead, shrouded and in the Thames. And in Alex Gray’s Get The Midnight Out, which is set where my parents’ live, on the Isle of Mull, DCI Latimer, ostensibly on holiday, discovers a dead boy on the shore which reminds him a great deal of an unsolved murder in Glasgow when he was a rookie 20 years earlier. Alex listened very patiently to my two possible suspects, and why they were the only possible candidates, imho – but in the best tradition of crime writers kept a neutral smile on her face throughout! (I’ll let you know if I was right when I review it, but no more than that!)

    • Oh, Crimeworm, they both are great examples of what I had in mind with this post – thanks :-). The Bolton is up very soon on my own reading list, and I’m very keen to see what you think of the Gray. Nice to know she listened to you so politely and patiently… The ‘washed up on shore’ plot point is just so useful in a crime fiction novel isn’t it?

  4. Kathy D.

    This is a good plot point, leading to some clever twists and solutions. The Dying Beach is a good one, sending me to google about Thailand’s geography and sealife. In Her Blood is OK, got a bit too violent in parts for my taste, although the main character has a bevy of problems and a reader wants to know what she does.
    The Sea Detective is quite clever, in part,a historical mystery; part of
    the story is set on islands off Scotland and a reader can just feel
    the cold, desolate places the protagonist visits. Brrr! I was
    freezing reading it.

    • You make a well-taken point, Kathy. There are all kinds of different plot twists that the ‘body washed up on shore’ motif makes possible. And I agree that Douglas-Home really does convey the bitter bleakness of some of the places in the book. Makes you want to reach for a warm blanket as you read.

  5. Bodies washing up on shore is a great plot device! Unfortunately, TV series often get it wrong, showing a body that’s been submerged for days with no bloating at all. It drives me crazy! As I’m sure you know, gasses in the body totally disfigure a corpse and can make the person unrecognizable, even to those who know him/her. And when there’s no ID handy, which is often the case, too, the beach corpse can be a great hook to a twisted tale of misleading clues.

    • You’ve absolutely right, Sue. And yes, TV and film often get wrong just what submersion for any length of time does to a body. Even partners and children and parents wouldn’t necessarily know it was their loved one. I don’t like it either, ‘though I do understand that it allows for a shortcut for fimmakers. As you say, that lack of ease of identification can add a real layer of suspense to a plot.

  6. You mentioned so many good examples there, that I struggle to think of any more. It’s not a sea, but a lake where the body of a young girl is found in Sjowall & Wahloo’s Roseanna. The second sentences informs us that the body was fairly intact, so it couldn’t have been lying long in the water, but that doesn’t make the identification easy.
    I also remember PD James saying that the perfect murder is probably pushing someone off a cliff into the sea (if there are no witnesses around, of course), because it can so easily be disguised as an accident.

    • Marina Sofia – You make a good point. Just because the body in Roseanna is more or less intact doesn’t make it an awful lot easier to identify the victim. And the story of how the woman is identified is interesting – and really reflective of the times. I think P.D. James had a very well-taken point about the perfect murder, too…

  7. N@ncy

    I am a Crime Fiction novice ….I never even thought about the dumping of a body as a plot point! Many thanks for this insighrt and I will be more aware of what happens in the dark world of crime!

    • I’m excited that you’re discovering the world of crime fiction. There’s so much in the genre, and so many different kinds of novels. I think you’ll find that there’s lots to love – I hope you will. 🙂

  8. I’m not sure if I’ve read “The Breaker” and I love Minette Walters’ books. I will have to check into it!

  9. I enjoy reading your insights into mysteries!!

  10. Hi Margot. I’ve been lurking around your great blog for some time and thought I’d offer my 2 cents on this particular post.

    My background is a homicide detective and a forensic coroner. As such, I’ve dealt with a number of water related deaths and I’d just like to pass on a bit of realism to your followers, especially crime writers.

    There are two distinct marine environments that effect bodies that ‘wash up on the beach’ – salt water and fresh water. (Actually, washing-up rarely happens in either environment.) The inherent nature of the human body is that its density is greater than water so it naturally sinks as the result of gravity pulling it to the bottom where it will stay, unless other forces are at play. Salt water is more bouyant than fresh water so there is a greater likelyhood of a wash-up occurring in the ocean, or tidal water, than in freshwater.

    There are a lot of factors at work to cause (or prevent) a wash-up. Sue Coletta makes the excellent point about gassing-off. This is a natural process of decomposition which changes the body’s density and will cause it to rise or become a ‘floater’ which we called them in the business. Water temperature is a huge factor. Warm water, like in the tropics, will expedite the decomp whereas cold water, like where I’m from on the north Pacific coast, rarely gives up her dead because it’s too cold to cause enough gassing-off.

    The other factor in the ocean is the abundance of marine life that will devour a cadaver in the matter of days. Every floater that I’ve examined from the ocean has had the exposed flesh devoured and generally what was left was a torso that was protected by tight clothing. Fresh water is not as aggressive and also does not have the tide and current factors that move a bloated body around and contribute to a wash-up.

    Hope this helps out fellow crime writers and thanks again for hosting a really interesting blog!

    • Thanks so much for your visit, Garry, and for all of this really useful information. One of the many important thing your comment reminds us is that unlike films and TV, bodies that are pulled out of water, whether or not they’re floaters, do not look like the intact ‘bodies’ you see on the screen. And that makes a lot of sense when you consider things like temperature, water quality and as you say, marine life. All of that plays a role, and I’m sure it’s all taken into careful consideration when forensics experts are trying to learn what they can from remains. This is ally really helpful to know, especially for people who want to create a realistic scenario where a body shows up in some way after having been submerged. I appreciate the detail here, and your interest in my blog.

  11. I did not realize how many novels feature this element. I see it a lots in TV shows. Happens a lot in Midsomer Murders episodes, but in rivers or lakes mostly.

    • That’s quite true, Tracy. I think that plot point can pack a visual punch, as the saying goes, so It’s not surprising I suppose that you see it so often on TV and in films. And it does allow for all sorts of complications as to the victim’s identity, etc..

  12. Roseanna was the first example I thought of when I read your introduction (a book recommended by you, and which led to me reading all the other Beck books).
    Breaker, incidentally, was one of the first books I read after reading your review, and thinking of it still leaves me speechless
    Great examples, and great post.

    • Thanks, Natasha. I’m very glad you’ve enjoyed the Martin Beck series. I think it’s one of those absolute classic series of the genre that crime fiction fans really ought to read. And The Breaker was very well done, I thought.

  13. Particularly fascinating comments here! There are many familiar features of body-in-water: the case where the murderer ‘could have expected the body not to turn up so soon’ but gets caught by chance, and we all know to wonder whether there is water in the lungs – was the victim dead, or unconscious, before hitting the water? I mentioned Shilling for Candles in relation to one of your recent posts, and here we go again: Christine Clay is washed up on the beach after an early-morning swim, and everyone else might be surprised it’s not an accident, but we aren’t…

    • And it’s a great example, Moira, so I’m glad you brought it up. I’ve found this discussion really fascinating, myself. Actually, that’s one of the things I like most about blogging – what I learn from the people who are kind enough to comment here. And you’re right: the body-in-the-water plot point has all sorts of features that we fans of crime fiction have come to know.

  14. Hi Margot. Great topic. My contribution is again drawn from Chandleriana: the novel The Lady in the Lake, in which the body doesn’t wash up so much as just kind of appears in the lake, the discovery of which leads us to interesting revelations.

    • Thanks, Bryan, and that’s a great example! Certainly the fact that the victim just shows up in the lake makes it a lot more difficult to answer all the questions about her identity and her killer.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s