There’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.