If you’ve ever been on a boat of any kind, you know that there’s always risk involved. Even on luxury cruise liners, there are lifeboat drills and other safety precautions. The thing is, you never know, when you’re out on the water, what’s going to happen.
Certainly, the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down with all hands on this date in 1975, didn’t know for sure what would happen to them. The ship was caught in a sudden storm, and couldn’t make it to safety in time. The loss of ships and other boats is a part of history all over the world, and it’s woven into crime fiction, too. That makes sense, when you think of all the possibilities (e.g. lost treasure, missing people who may (or may not) turn up again, and much more). There’s only room for a few examples in this one post; I know you’ll think of many others.
In Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, we are introduced to Margot Standing, an ingénue who is set to inherit a large fortune from her father, Edward, who’s recently been lost at sea. The only problem is, Margot’s cousin Egbert also has a claim to the money. And the papers that would prove Edward Standing’s intent have disappeared. Egbert proposes that he and Margot should marry, and keep the money ‘in the family.’ This Margot refuses to do, and ends up leaving her home. What she doesn’t know is that she’s the target of a gang led by a mysterious criminal called Grey Mask. The plan is to get rid of her and take her money. She finds an unlikely ally in Margaret Langton, whose former fiancé Charles Moray already knows about Grey Mask’s plot. Together, Langton and Moray try to unravel the mystery of Grey Mask’s identity, and save Margot from their plans. To do that, they get help from Miss Maude Silver, for whom this novel is a first outing. In this case, the treasure wasn’t, strictly speaking, on the ship that went down. But the shipwreck has a lot to do with the plot.
In Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, Vigo police detective Leo Caldas and his team investigate the death of a local fisherman, Justo Castelo. At first, it looks like a case of suicide. But Caldas soon notes a few little inconsistencies that call that explanation into question. So the team members dig a little deeper. They learn that Castelo didn’t have a wide social circle, and no real enemies. The only lead that seems at all promising is Castelo’s connection to José Arias and Marcos Valverde. Years earlier, the three had been out one night on a fishing boat with their captain, Antonio Sousa. A sudden storm came up, and the boat went down. Sousa died, but the other three made it back to land. And, as it turns out, that death has a lot to do with Castelo’s death.
In one plot thread of Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, Edinburgh oceanographer Caladgh ‘Cal’ is using his expertise in wave patterns to solve the mystery of his grandfather Uilliem’s disappearance. Years earlier, Uilliem had met his wife on ilean Isagaich Mor, Great Fishing Island, settled there, and prepared to start life. Then, he was lost during a sea voyage. Now, his grandson wants to find out where his body might be and what happened to him. That trail leads back to the island and the relationships among the people there. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at what happens to a community when some of the men are lost at sea.
Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide takes place mostly in and around Brisbane. Allan ‘Tug’ Bretton, who captains the fishing trawler Sea Mistress, broke his leg in an onboard incident (on another boat) connected with the death of a deckhand, Ewan McKay. His daughter, Samantha ‘Sam’, wants to skipper Sea Mistress in his place. On the one hand, Tug’s not sure his daughter is ready for the responsibility. On the other, the boat has to go out, or the family stands to lose a lot of money. So, reluctantly, Tug agrees, and Sam starts to plan for the trip. One thing she’ll need to do is get a deckhand. For that, she hires Chayse Jarrett. What she doesn’t know is that he’s actually an undercover copper who’s looking into McKay’s death. He wants to see if there’s any evidence that Tug Bretton is guilty. The police theory is that McKay’s murder might be connected to the Brisbane-area drugs trade, so Jarrett is also investigating any connection the Bretton family might have to drugs smuggling. The fishing trip gets underway, and turns out to be far more dangerous than either Sam Bretton or Chayse Jarrett thought it would be. And, interestingly enough, it’s all related to a long-ago shipwreck, and the mutiny that led to it.
And then there’s Robin Blake’s historical (1742) novel, The Hidden Man. In that story, Attorney and Coroner Titus Cragg works with his friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, to find out who killed pawnbroker and would-be banker, Philip Pimbo. Cragg and Fidelis learn that Pimbo had financially backed a ship called The Fortunate Isle. A few weeks before the murder, Pimbo’s business partner, Zadok Moon, had filed a claim with the firm that insured the ship. According to that claim, the ship and its cargo were a total loss. That claim, the ship, its cargo and its fate, turn out to be important to solving the murder. One interesting thing this novel highlights is the way insurance companies are traditionally involved in sea voyages.
Of course, not all trips by sea end tragically. Most of the time they don’t. But the fact that they might can add a lot of interesting suspense to a novel. Right, fans of Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star? These are just a few examples. Your turn.
This post is dedicated to the memory of the 29 members of the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I hope their families have found peace and healing.
NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.