They Might Have Split Up or They Might have Capsized*

shipwrecksIf 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.


In Memoriam


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.


Filed under Domingo Villar, Mark Douglas-Home, Martin Cruz Smith, Patricia Wentworth, Sandy Curtis

23 responses to “They Might Have Split Up or They Might have Capsized*

  1. Tim

    Three (not genre literature) come to mind: American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (i.e., avoid small boats!); Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (i.e., avoid whaling ships); The Book of Jonah (i.e., avoid disobeying God).
    And my posting today at my blog — (i.e., avoid French canal boats).
    All the best from a veteran of the Pacific via three U.S. Navy aircraft carriers (USS CORAL SEA; USS RANGER; and USS KITTY HAWK).

    • All excellent examples, Tim. And it doesn’t matter in the least that they aren’t genre fiction. They work. Your experience aboard U.S. Navy ships shows, too, that plenty of people come home safely from trips to sea.

  2. One of John Dickson Carr’s classic “impossible crime” books is The Crooked Hinge (1938), in which a man named John Farnleigh, who survived the sinking of the Titanic, shows up to claim his (very large) inheritance in England. Only a second man shows up claiming to be John Farnleigh and claiming that the two boys had switched identities as the ship was sinking. Soon, murder ensues – and the real events of the night the Titanic went down will prove to be key to solving the puzzle and the murder.

    • Oh, an excellent example, Les! Trust you to suggest the perfect classic crime novel for this theme. Thanks for filling in that gap. And on a side note, I’ve always thought that sinking was so very poignant. Plenty of other ships have been lost, with all aboard gone. But for some reason, that one stays with one – well, at least with this one.

  3. Col

    I’ve not read too many where the sea and boats are prevalent. Something from Carl Hiaasen where the husband tries to bump the wife off by putting her overboard – Skinny Dip, and David Mark’s The Dark Winter had something to do with a lost fishing boat, though I can’t remember it too well.

    • And both are good examples, Col, of the sort of mayhem that can happen on a boat. What’s interesting, too, is that they’re such different sorts of books. Shows you it’s a flexible plot point.

  4. Thanks Margot. You reminded me of FEAR IS THE KEY, the early and rather good Alistair MacLean thriller that features a sunken treasure, though admittedly it is in a plane rather than a ship.

    • Oh, I have to confess I never got the chance to read that one, Sergio. But I know it’s a good ‘un. Thanks for the reminder of something I really need to put back on my TBR.

  5. kathy d

    Peter May’s excellent Lewis Trilogy tells of a terrible tragedy on Jan. 1, 1919, right off the coast of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The Iolaire, a yacht, was carrying men and boys home from fighting in World War I and it hit rocks and sunk. About 200 people drowned. A lot of them couldn’t swim.
    A heroic man dragged a rope which others held onto and saved about 40 lives.
    But that was a terrible tragedy. Each little village lost people.
    These guys survived a world war and then drowned, just as they arrived home. It brought tears to my eyes to read about this very real event.

    • That is an excellent example of the sort of shipwreck tragedy I had in mind with this post. Thanks for the reminder of both it and the very real event on which it’s based.

  6. No titles come to mind at the moment. There’s something about the water and boats that always seems mysterious to me. Maybe it’s because you can’t see into the water and know what’s underneath. Great examples here, Margot. The tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald always tugs on my heart.

    • It tugs at mine, too, Mason. There’s just something about it… At any rate, you’re right about the water. You can’t always see what’s under it, and that adds to the fear if there is a wreck. And, of course, there’s the mystery of those old shipwreck tales….

  7. I can’t even imagine the horrors that crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald experienced. My heart goes out to them. Recently I read a fascinating account of what caused the Titanic to sink (beside the iceberg). If you’re interested, you can find it here:

    • Oh, thanks, Sue! That’s a helpful link, folks – check it out. And I agree about the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I very much feel for them and their families, even after all this time.

  8. tracybham

    Thanks for all this interesting information, Margot. Traveling on the ocean has no appeal for me, not even a cruise ship. But that is what is great about reading, you can vicariously experience some activities you don’t want to try.

    • That’s true, Tracy. You can have all sorts of experiences that you wouldn’t want to actually go through, just by reading about them. Glad you found the post interesting.

  9. I’ve not read many books which feature ship-wrecks although I’ve read two set on cruise liners this year – the books you’ve featured have made me even more doubtful that a life at sea would suit me!

  10. kathy d

    Well, not exactly a wreck, but tragedy ensues on Yrsa Sigurdadottir’s book, The Silence of the Sea.
    Regarding music about at-sea disasters, I am reminded of the song about the Titanic, sung by many singers. The version I know is performed by Pete Seeger and the Weavers, with the lines I’ll never forget, “It was sad when that great ship went down. It was sad, oh, it was sad. Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives. It was sad when that great ship went down.”

  11. Les Blatt came in before me with my book – I was going to mention Crooked HInge with its Titanic connection too.
    The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is a wonderful song, I love it. For a long time I assumed it was some far-off historical event, I was surprised to realize it was so recent.
    And all that remains is the faces and the names
    Of the wives and the sons and the daughters

    • Isn’t it a haunting song, Moira? I think of it (and its inspiration) quite often; it’s that sort of event and song. And thanks for mentioning Crooked Hinges. It’s just the sort of story I had in mind with this post.

  12. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…11/14/16 – Where Genres Collide

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