Take Me Down to My Boat on the River*

HouseboatsThere’s something about living on a boat that has a lot of appeal for some people. Living on a houseboat means a certain amount of mobility and flexibility. And although it’s far from free, living on a houseboat means you don’t pay property taxes, municipal water/sewage fees and so on, because you don’t own land. If your boat’s paid for, it can be a lot less expensive to live on a houseboat than to live in a conventional ‘nice area.’ Depending on your finances and priorities, you can have a very nice boat, too.

There are houseboat communities all over the world. So it shouldn’t be surprising that we see a lot of houseboats in crime fiction, too. Houseboat communities are interesting contexts, and living on a houseboat can give the sleuth an interesting character dimension.

Perhaps the most famous crime-fictional example of a houseboat dweller is John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. He’s a ‘salvage consultant’ who lives on a boat he calls The Busted Flush (he won the boat in a poker game). McGee helps clients who’ve been robbed to get their property back; he charges half the value of the property, which keeps him in boat paint and canned goods. The Busted Flush is moored in Lauderdale, Florida, but McGee also travels on his boat at times. Life on the boat suits McGee, as he doesn’t want to be overly encumbered with things.

Fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux will know that when we first meet him in The Neon Rain, he’s living on a houseboat in Lake Ponchartrain, and working for the New Orleans Police Department. He’s an avid fisherman, and that’s what draws him into this particular case. He’s fishing on Bayou Lafourche when he discovers the body of a young woman who turns out to have been a prostitute. He starts investigating only to find that a very powerful drugs gang does not want him to stick his nose in, as the saying goes. And he finds out soon enough that the New Orleans Police Department seems no more eager than the criminals for Robicheaux to learn who the woman was and why she was killed. Certainly Robicheaux doesn’t find the serenity he thought he would find when he got the houseboat.

Daniel Pembrey’s Henk van der Pol is an Amsterdam police detective who features in Pembrey’s Harbour Master trilogy. As van der Pol puts it,

‘We Dutch remain at heart a seafaring people: a small but proud collective who once traded with the farthest reaches of the globe…’

He carries on that history in his way. He and his wife Pernilla live on a houseboat, and he has a morning ritual of looking out over Amsterdam Harbour before he starts his day. That’s why he’s on the scene when a dog walker notices something one morning and gives the alert. It turns out to be the body of a young woman. There is no identification on her except for a tattoo on her ankle, which van der Pol discovers is the insignia of a dangerous Hungarian gang. The ‘higher-ups’ among the police force want this case to go away; and in fact, van der Pol is removed from it. But that doesn’t mean he’s willing to give up. There’s a scene in this story in which we are reminded that houseboats are not always safe places.

There’s also Betty Webb’s Teddy Bentley. She works at the Gunn Zoo in Northern California, and lives on the Merilee, which is moored at Gunn Landing Harbor. She loves her boat, but one of the running conflicts in this series is that her mother would like nothing better than for her to give it up and find a ‘real’ place to live. In the first novel, The Anteater of Death (OK, can we pause for a moment and appreciate that title?), the body of Grayson Harrill is found in the anteater enclosure at the zoo. At first, Lucy the Anteater is blamed. But when it’s discovered that Harrill was shot, it’s clear to Bentley that Lucy was not responsible. Then there’s another murder. Now Bentley has to find out who is using the zoo as a murder site.

But it’s not just sleuths who live in houseboats. In Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery (AKA Münster’s Case), Intendant Münster and his team investigate the stabbing death of Waldemar Leverkuhn. He and some of his friends went in together on a lottery ticket, and have just found out that they won. So they go out to celebrate. Later that night, Leverkuhn is murdered. Of course the police look close to home (Leverkuhn has left behind a wife and some children). They also talk to the people who live in the same apartment building. But there isn’t much in the way of useful information. When they learn about the lottery ticket, they think they may have found the motive. So they interview the other people who in were with Leverkuhn on the lottery ticket. One of them, Bonger, hasn’t been seen since the night of the murder, so naturally the police are particularly interested in him. He lives on a houseboat, so the Münster and his team interview some of the other members of that houseboat community. They are quirky and interesting, but really can’t shed much light on Bonger’s whereabouts. This aspect of the plot sheds an interesting light on some of the people who choose to live in houseboats.

And then there’s Barry Maitland’s The Raven’s Eye. There are plenty of people who live in houseboats moored in London’s canal system; one of them is Vicky Hawke. One day, one of the other houseboaters finds Vicky dead in her bed, apparently of carbon monoxide poisoning. The first, and most likely, explanation is that the boat’s heating system wasn’t properly ventilated, and the victim succumbed while she was sleeping. But Kolla has her doubts, and begins to ask some questions. That’s when she finds that ‘Vicky Hawke’ wasn’t the victim’s real name. That discovery opens up all sorts of possibilities for killer and motive. It all goes to show that houseboats can be dangerous.

But they do have an appeal, especially for people who want to get away from conventional apartments or houses. Just…don’t think of them as peaceful…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Boat on the River.


Filed under Barry Maitland, Betty Webb, Daniel Pembray, Håkan Nesser, James Lee Burke, John D. MacDonald

26 responses to “Take Me Down to My Boat on the River*

  1. Fab post, as usual Margot! When I think “houseboat” and “detective” I think of Quincy, M.E. A t.v. series instead of a novel, but still good!

    • Thank you, Kathy 🙂 – And I agree about Quincy. Perhaps not a book series, but certainly a great example of life on a houseboat. And I always liked Jack Klugman.

  2. What an interesting post – there must be something enchanting about living on a boat, although perhaps a little too cramped for my taste (I’m a bit claustrophobic). I hadn’t thought of any other than Travis McGee, but you’ve found so many more examples.

    • Thank you, Marina Sofia. I agree about the romance of boat life, too. I have to say, though, that you have a point about ‘cramped.’ And unless you’re very wealthy, the amenities don’t tend to be as nice. But still, there is something about it. At least Travis McGee must think so. 😉

  3. Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint had taken up residence in a houseboat in the Thames in her last outing, ‘A Dark and Twisted Tide’. Not so idyllic when bodies started floating past in the river… not to mention those crabs! *shudders*

    Haha! I love ‘The Anteater of Death’ as a title!

    • Isn’t that title great, FictionFan?! And thanks for mentioning A Dark and Twisted Tide. I should have done, myself, but didn’t. I’m glad you filled in that gap. And you’re right; those bodies and crabs do not exactly make for luxury living.

  4. I immediately think of the character Tony Hill (Val McDermid ) He lived on a house boat for a while.

  5. Margot: More than once I idly dreamed of The Busted Flush as a home but only briefly each time as Travis made clear there is never ending maintenance.

  6. Col

    Great post – I’ve loved Robicheaux and McGee at different stages in my reading life. Time to dig out another Travis book!

  7. Now you know I love canals, Margot! Full of inspiration, in fact, as you know, the first mystery for Blake sees a showdown on a canal boat – far from peaceful. Love your examples. More for the TBR list I fear…

    • Canals are great places, aren’t they, D.S.? As you say, lots of grist for the story mill there. And I remember that scene from Hats Off to Murder. I thought that showdown scene was great! You capture the canal scene very effectively.

  8. Even though water can be quite peaceful and calming, I also think of it as an intriguing place for murder. Hard for police to sometimes determine if a person has accidentally fallen over board or been pushed. As always, Margot your post is amazing.

    • Thank you, Mason. And you’re absolutely right about canals and other bodies of water. They are intriguing places where there are all sorts of possibilities. You’re thinking like a crime writer here… 🙂

  9. Margot, I recently read a couple of reviews of “The Kashmir Shawl” by Rosie Thomas which is set in and around lakeside city of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir — India’s very own Switzerland. The story also revolves around the famous Dal Lake and its houseboats with the Himalayan range in the backdrop. A newlywed couple migrates from Wales to Srinagar where their life changes. What happened to them is discovered years later — “When Mair Ellis clears out her father’s house, she finds an exquisite antique shawl, woven from the finest yarns and embroidered in the shades of lake water and mountain skies. Wrapped within its folds is a lock of child’s hair. Tracing her grandparents’ roots back to Kashmir, Mair embarks on a quest that will change her life forever.” It sounds like a beautiful novel.

    • Oh, that does sound like a wonderful story, Prashant. And now I want to know what happened to the couple! And what a breathtaking setting for the story, too! I may have to look for this novel, as it sounds so intriguing.

  10. After reading Macdonald, I always thought I would like to live on a houseboat. Until I actually went on one and realized the boat is always moving. Not for my stomach.

  11. So glad you mentioned the Barry Maitland, I love his books. Elizabeth Haynes has an intriguing book called Revenge of the Tides, set in the world of houseboats – I found the look at the community very interesting, as well as the crime plot.
    I used to live in Seattle, and there on Lake Union there are residences called houseboats – but they are not really boats, they are a strange hybrid of shack and floating residence, very beautiful, I’m not sure how comfortable to live in! Tom Hanks has one in Sleepless in Seattle…

    • Oh, those Seattle boats do sound interesting, Moira. I admit I’ve never seen them, ‘though I’ve been to Seattle. What an innovative approach to on-the-water housing! As to Maitland, I really like his work, too, and his Brock and Kolla characters. They’re so nicely developed, aren’t they? And thanks for mentioning the Haynes; that’s not one I’ve read yet, ‘though you’re not the first to tell me it’s worth the read.

  12. I’m with FictionFan – my favourite detective on a boat is in Sharon Bolton’s Lacey Flint novels which is set on the River Thames – in London but a whole part of a different type of community that resides on the river. I think it is that aspect that is so interesting, the occupiers of houseboats tend to have alternative thinking as well as alternative living arrangements.

    • I think so, too, Cleo. The houseboat community is fascinating just on that score, in my opinion. And yes, we certainly see what it’s like through the Lacey Flint series. Glad you mentioned them.

  13. Living on a boat sounds romantic but not for me. But I do enjoy reading about them. Thanks for all the suggestions.

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