We Were Sailing Away With a Cargo of Bricks*

Shipping and BoatingThe shipping and boating industries have been essential to many nations’ economies since ships were able to cross the oceans. People have made fortunes transporting cargo, and it’s been responsible for a lot of related businesses (shipbuilding, banking, and even pleasure and sport boating, just to name a few).

And if you think about it, places like cargo holds, shipping crates and boathouses are effective settings for crime fiction, too. All sorts of things can happen in those places, and they make good hiding places for bodies, weapons and clues. So it’s not surprising that we see those locations in crime fiction.

In Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask, for instance, Tom Broughton, who works for the Insular and Continental Steam Navigation Company, is sent down to the London docks when the Bullfinch pulls in from Rouen. There’s a valuable consignment of wine on board, and the company wants to ensure that it’s arrived in good order. As Broughton checks the various casks, he makes a horrifying discovery. Instead of wine, one of them contains the body of a young woman. Inspector Burnley of Scotland Yard begins to investigate. At first the case is difficult, since the woman has no identification. But, going from the fact that the casks came from Paris, Burnley suspects she may have been French. So he travels to Paris and works with M. LeFarge of the Sûreté to find out who the woman was and how her body ended up in a shipping cask. Among other things, this is an interesting look at the way cargo was moved at the time the novel was written.

Vanda Symon’s Containment begins with the grounding of the Lauretia Express in Dunedin. The ship’s cargo ends up strewn on the beach (and some of it doesn’t even get that far), which sets off mass looting. People grab whatever they can, from clothes to furniture and more. The looting raises tensions to the point where people are fighting over the salvage. In fact, when Detective Constable Sam Shephard arrives on the scene, she tries to break up one such fight and ends up injured herself. But there’s something else about this particular cargo. When one women goes searching among the clothes, she finds a human skull. And Shephard ends up with much more to cope with than a public disturbance.

There’s also Robin Blake’s The Hidden Man. In that historical (1742) novel, Attorney and Coroner Titus Cragg works with his friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, to find out who shot pawnbroker and would-be banker Philip Pimbo. As Cregg looks into the case, he learns that Pimbo had financially backed a ship called The Fortunate Isle. A few weeks before Pimbo’s death, Pimbo’s business partner, Zadok Moon, lodged a claim with the company that insured the ship, stating that the ship and all its cargo was a total loss. As it turns out, that insurance claim plays an important role in the solution to the mystery.

And it’s not just what one finds in ships’ holds and cargo containers, either. Boathouses and storage garages can also hold plenty of shipping equipment, too – and clues, as well as bodies. For instance, in Jill McGown’s A Perfect Match, DI David Lloyd and DS Judy Hill investigate when the body of Julia Mitchell is found in Thorpe Wood, a boating park near the town of Stansfield. At first, all of the evidence points to a man named Chris Wade, who was known to have been with the victim on the night of the murder. But he can’t be questioned, since he’s gone missing. And as it turns out, there are several other possibilities. So Lloyd and Hill have to untangle the messy network of relationships among the people in the victim’s life. And they find that part of the key to the mystery can be found in a boathouse.

A storage garage figures in Minette Walter’s The Breaker. One morning, two young boys discover the body of Kate Sumner on the beach near Chapman’s Pool in Dorset. Not long afterwards, her toddler daughter Hannah is found wandering the streets of nearby Poole. PC Nick Ingram, who’s first officer on the scene, works with DI John Galbraith, WPC Sandra Griffiths and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who the murderer is and what happened to Hannah. The field of suspects ends up being narrowed to more or less three possibilities. So the police have to look closely into each one’s background. And part of what they learn comes from a garage that’s used to store a boat – and the evidence of other ‘business enterprises.’

And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse, the first of his Lewis trilogy. In that novel, two sixteen-year-olds, Ceit and Uilleam, sneak off to a boatshed on the Isle of Lewis to find some privacy. Instead of the romantic interlude they planned, they make a gruesome discovery: the body of Angel Macritchie is hanging from the rafters. As it turns out, there’s been a killing in Edinburgh that bears similarity to this case. So Edinburgh police detective Fionnliagh ‘Finn’ Macleod makes the trip to Lewis to see if anything about this newest murder can help in solving the other. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up here. But it’s not a happy one. Along with solving the murder of Angel Mcritchie, Macleod will also have to face his past, and plenty of personal ghosts.

See what I mean? Shipping and boating are certainly crucial to a lot of economies. But safe? Peaceful? I don’t think so.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Irish Rover, attributed to J.M. Crofts.


Filed under Freeman Wills Crofts, Jill McGown, Minette Walters, Peter May, Robin Blake, Vanda Symon

28 responses to “We Were Sailing Away With a Cargo of Bricks*

  1. Tim

    And let’s not forget about that damned Maltese falcon as cargo.

  2. Interesting one. Hmm, let me think… Johan Theorin’s excellent The Voices Beyond starts with a boy climbing aboard a boat that is involved in some shady shipping, only to discover the crew all dead or dying. A briliantly wirtten, atmospheric start. And if memory serves me right, the main protagonist Gerlof sometimes sleeps in his boathouse to get some peace from the various grandchildren staying in his house. There’s also a boathouse in Carol O’Connell’s Judas Child, to which a child is lured and then abducted. Another very atmospheric and quite creepy book, that one.

    • Oh, those are both good examples, FictionFan, of what I had in mind with this post, so thanks. I have to admit, sometimes O’Connell’s Kathy Mallory is a little over the top for my taste. But that particular novel really is creepy, isn’t it? And I happen to like Gerlof Daviddson very much, so I’m glad you mentioned him. Theorin’s novels have a great sense of place and local culture, too, which I like

  3. My favorite crime novel set on a boat is Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star; that was an icebreaker from memory — a locked room mystery on a boat.

  4. Here we go again, Margot–you’ve got my creative juices flowing once more. Just imagine the possibilities for my PI, Mac McClellan. He’s based in the coastal FL panhandle where recreational AND commercial fishing are prime contributors to the local economy. Mac has already stumbled onto a crime or two while fishing aboard his rental boat — what’s to say he can’t blunder into more prime/crime situations? Thanks, I appreciate the inspiration! 🙂

    • Thanks, Michael – It sounds as though you’ve got some intriguing ideas! And the Florida panhandle is a terrific context for a boating/fishing mystery. I agree that there’s no reason Mac McLellan couldn’t come into contact with suspicious cargo. Or a body in a boathouse. Or…or…or…

  5. Col

    I’ve just read a book recently that involves shipping gold and a corpse (more than once) from Alaska in the 1910s south to the Lower States – Dead Men Do Come Back by Stephen C. Levi.

  6. I see we have to be quick with our comments on your post, otherwise others get there before me: Johan Theorin’s atmospheric spooky Marie Celeste type of beginning was mentioned, as was Polar Star. So I’ll just say Death on the Nile – although that’s a cruise ship, I’m not sure if that counts, right? And of course boats are ideal places for committing murders that you can get away with: just ask the talented Mr. Ripley!

    • Yes, indeed, Marina Sofia! And I’m glad you mentioned Death on the Nile, as it shows another way in which the boat context can work for a murder mystery. With all of those disparate people in the same place, it’s no wonder mayhem results. I’m also glad you mentioned the Theorin and the Cruz Smith. Doesn’t matter if someone else did, they’re still great books.

  7. Must admit, THE CASK was probably the first I thought of! Is it DEAD MAN’S FOLLY that has a murder in the boathouse?

    • It is, indeed, Sergio! Good memory! And thanks for bringing that one up. Among many other things, I did like the way for the way the boathouse was chosen. I thought it was quite clever.

  8. When I think of boats and the sea, I automatically think of mayhem, mystery and murder. There’s just so much that can go wrong and in most cases, very few people around to see it.

    • That’s a good point, Mason. There aren’t usually a lot of people around when cargo is being loaded/unloaded/moved. And the same thing is true of places like boathouses. It’s easy to pick just the right moment, so to speak.

  9. Don’t quote me, but I think it was one of Michael Connelly’s novels where a lawyer discovers his client is truly guilty when he meets him in the boathouse. An excellent cat-and-mouse scene develops, and it all takes place in the middle of the night, in the rain, inside that boat house. The title escapes me; I read it years ago. 😀

    • I know which novel you’re talking about, Sue (or at least, I think I might). I don’t want to name it for reasons of spoiler-avoidance. But it’s a good example of effective use of a boat house 🙂

  10. You made me think about a long-ago Alastair Maclean thriller, Golden Rendezvous: I think a boat was hijacked, passengers held hostage, a cargo of gold in the hold, maybe a nuclear weapon in the mix somewhere…

    • Sounds intriguing, Moira. I must admit, I’ve not read it, ‘though I know of MacLean’s work. But it certainly sounds as though this one is a great example of what I had in mind with this post – thanks.

  11. I have read a few books recently where a boat is the place of residence – can make for a good crime scene

  12. So many good examples here, Margot. Polar Star is the one that I remembered, already noted in the comments.

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