So Hoist Up the John B. Sails*

voyagesOne of literature’s very interesting plots is what Christopher Booker has called the voyage and return. Booker’s work has its critics, but it is interesting to see how journeys (whether figurative or literal) can change people. We certainly see this sort of structure in crime fiction, and that makes sense when you consider all of the things that can happen on a voyage, no matter how you conceive of that term.

For example, there’s quite a literal voyage and return in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train. After ten years of service as a paid companion, Katherine Grey inherits a fortune when her employer dies. She decides to use some of the money to travel, and chooses Nice as her destination (she has distant relatives who live there). As she’s taking the famous Blue Train through France, she meets wealthy Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who has her own reasons for taking the train. During the trip, Ruth is murdered, and Katherine is drawn in to the case. Hercule Poirot is taking the same train, and he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why. Katherine returns to her village of St. Mary Mead, and takes up another position, but she’s not the same person as when she left. As Poirot points out, she’s no longer an onlooker to life; she takes an active part in it.

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time features fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, and is quite accustomed to a certain routine in his life. One day, he discovers that the dog belonging to the people next door is dead. Its owners think he’s responsible, but Christopher knows he isn’t. So, he decides to be a detective, just like Sherlock Holmes, and find out the truth. The trail leads him to several unexpected places, and when he returns, he’s not the same person he was. He still has autism, but he has discovered several important things about himself.

H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case serves as a prequel to his series featuring Mumbai police detective Ganesh Ghote. In this novel, Ghote has just been promoted to the rank of Inspector. His supervisor asks him to travel to Mahableshwar and look into a case of suicide on behalf of a friend. It seems Robert Dawkins’ wife Iris killed herself, and he (Dawkins) wants to know why. Since Dawkins is a friend of Ghote’s boss, Ghote feels he has no choice but to look into the matter, although his wife, Protima, is about to give birth to their first child. So, he goes to Mahableshwar and begins to ask questions. He finds that there are reasons for which Iris Dawkins might have wanted to take her own life. Still, the clues don’t add up, and Ghote slowly begins to believe that she was murdered. Now, he has to work out who is responsible. He discovers the truth, and gains some confidence in himself along the way. When he returns to Mumbai, we see that he’s done some maturing, and has a different relationship with his boss than he did at the beginning.

Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue is the first of her novels to feature Caitlin ‘Cait’ Morgan. In that novel, Morgan travels from Vancouver, where she teaches at the university, to Nice. There, she’ll attend a symposium and deliver a paper on behalf of a colleague who’s had an accident and can’t travel. One afternoon, she’s at an outdoor café when she has a chance encounter with Alistair Townsend, a former employer. Among other things, he persuades her (mostly against her will) to attend a birthday party he’s hosting for his wife, Tamsin. During the course of the party, Townsend suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be poison. The French police investigate, and Morgan finds herself one of the suspects. Mostly to clear her own name and be free to return to Vancouver, Morgan begins to ask questions. Each in a different way, Morgan and the police work to find out who killed Townsend, and they have several suspects. In the end, Morgan discovers the truth and goes back to Vancouver. But she’s not the same person she was at the beginning of the novel. And we see that this experience will change her life in more ways than she thought.

Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide is the story of Samantha ‘Sam’ Bretton. Her father Allan ‘Tug’ is the owner of a Brisbane-based fishing trawler called Sea Mistress, and the Brettons depend on the income that comes from good catches. Tug is suspected of murdering Ewan McKay, a deckhand from another trawler. He claims he’s not guilty and Sam believes him. But he’s under a cloud of suspicion. What’s more, he broke his leg in the incident surrounding McKay’s death. So, he can’t take Sea Mistress out. After some effort, Sam convinces her father to let her skipper the trawler in his place. Meanwhile, Brisbane cop Chayse Jarrett has been assigned to find out the truth about the McKay murder. He goes undercover and gets a job as deck hand on Sea Mistress, hoping to find out whether Tug Bretton is guilty of murder, and whether he might be connected to the drugs smuggling trade. The trawler goes out, with both Sam and Chayse looking to catch a killer. And the experience changes both of them. It turns out that McKay’s murder is connected with a much bigger case than it seems on the surface.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. Newly-minted psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark. At first, they don’t make any progress together. But very slowly, Elisabeth starts to talk about herself. And Stephanie finds that her client’s story is hauntingly similar to her own. It seems that years ago, Elisabeth’s younger sister, Gracie, was abducted. No trace of her was ever found, and the experience scarred the whole family. Stephanie lost her own sister, Gemma, seventeen years earlier in a similar way. When she hears Elisabeth’s story, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest. She travels from Dunedin to her home town of Wanaka to try to find out who wreaked so much havoc on her family and on the Clark family. Stephanie does find the answers she’s seeking. She also goes through some real personal changes.

And that’s the thing about some voyages. They can take people to places they hadn’t imagined. And they almost always change the voyager.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the traditional Bahamas folk song, The John B Sails. You might be familiar with the Kingston Trio’s recording of it, or that of the Beach Boys.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Cathy Ace, H.R.F. Keating, Mark Haddon, Paddy Richardson, Sandy Curtis

19 responses to “So Hoist Up the John B. Sails*

  1. Interesting topic! This example might be stretching it a bit, but in Tom Vowler’s That Dark Remembered Day, Richard Briggs is sent off to fight in the Falklands War, and the experiences he has there send him home a changed man, whose life and the lives of his family will be affected far into the future. In his case, though, it’s the war experiences more than the voyage itself that lead to the changes.

    • Thanks, FictionFan. And I actually like your example very much. As you say, the war certainly changes Briggs. But those experiences are a part of the figurative and literal voyage he makes to the Falklands and back, with all that that ends up meaning for him. And, as I think about it, that probably applies to a lot of young people who’ve gone to war. The war experiences change them, as does the experience of being away from home.

  2. As I come to the end of a two-week adventure in Arizona, today’s post topic is resonating particularly strongly for me, Margot. I feel very fortunate to have experienced the astonishing natural beauty of this place and have a whole suite of new places to go in my memories.

    • I am so pleased you’ve had a good visit, Angela. I couldn’t agre more about the breathtaking natural beauty of Arizona, and I know just what you mean about memories. I feel the same about my trip to South Australia a few years ago. Have a safe trip home!

  3. I love when the setting becomes almost another character in the novel.

  4. There’s one of the Agatha Christie Parker Pyne stories where the City Clerk goes on a journey. It’s very quiet on the way out, but adventure strikes on the way back. But perhaps everything isn’t as it seems… it is, by some standards, a silly, slight story. But I love this one, and the final thoughts of the three main parties at the end…

    • Trust you, Moira, to choose such a great example – thanks. I’ve always thought Parker Pyne doesn’t always get the notice he deserves. I’m glad you mentioned one of the stories that feature him.

  5. Col

    Not familiar with any of your examples, apart from the long ago read Haddon book.

  6. kathy d

    This brought back memories of the song about the John B, which I know.
    But I think I heard it sung by the Weavers. Ronnie Gilbert’s voice seems to be swimming in my head singing away.

  7. Pingback: Writing Links 2/2717 – Where Genres Collide

  8. I love Ronnie Gilbert’s voice, and all of the Weavers’ songs, for that matter. Thanks for that reminder.

  9. kathy d

    I grew up with the Weavers. Have their records. I think I know every song by heart — although I can’t remember what I read in the NY Times two weeks ago. And my father knew Pete Seeger. So, yes, they were great.
    Another plug: Ronnie Gilbert did an album of duets sung with Holly Near which is also excellent.

  10. I looked up The John B. Sails. I finally found what might be the origin – A 1647 colony in the Bahamas included a Welshman named John Bethel. The folk ballad of his crew is believed to have descended through the centuries into the folk song “(Wreck of the) Sloop John B.” I’m glad you mentioned these “sails”, i.e., you made me curious!

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