We Could Ride the Surf Together*

Today is the 75th birthday of Brian Wilson, who’s perhaps best known for being a co-founder of the Beach Boys. So, it seems like a good time to take a look at crime fiction that takes place on the beach. And if you think about it, the beach can be an effective context for a crime story. There are plenty of disparate people, and they tend to be there for only short periods of time. That makes it harder to link a particular person to a particular crime. And that’s not to mention the water, which provides all sorts of opportunities for murder methods.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot makes an interesting comment about the beach as a setting for a murder:

‘‘…here at the seaside it is necessary for no one to account for himself. You are at Leathercombe Bay, why? Parbleu! it is August – one goes to the seaside in August – one is on one’s holiday. It is quite natural, you see, for you to be here…’’

He’s got a well-taken point. There really isn’t much need to explain your presence at the beach. And that gives a fictional murderer all sorts of flexibility. And in this novel, the beach setting provides an effective ‘cover’ for the killer of famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. At first, her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, is the prime suspect. But when it’s proven that he is innocent, Hercule Poirot and the local police have to look elsewhere for the murderer.

In Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery, we are introduced to Prudence Whitsby. She and her niece, Betsey, have decided to escape the heat of the city and go to their summer cottage at Cape Cod. The cabin next to theirs has been rented for the summer by famous writer Dale Sanborn. One night, Sanborn is murdered. When Prudence discovers the body, Sheriff Slough Sullivan begins to investigate. Soon enough, Sullivan settles on Whitsby family friend Bill Porter as the most likely suspect. There’s evidence against him, too. But Porter’s cook and ‘man of all work,’ Asey Mayo, doesn’t think his boss is guilty. Neither, for the matter of that, does Prudence. So, the two of them look into the matter more closely. And it’s not long before they find that more than one person wanted Sanborn dead. Among other things, this novel shows the way people tended to head to New England seaside towns in the days before there was air conditioning.

Even today, plenty of seaside towns make a living on the fact that the beach is a popular destination. Just ask Chris Grabenstein’s Danny Boyle. He’s a police officer in the fictional New Jersey beachside town of Sea Haven. It’s got a relatively small year-round population; during the summer months, though, the population swells considerably. Many people come in for just a week or two:

‘Saturday is changeover day. People who rented last week are leaving; people renting this week will show up later, after the maid brigades have vacuumed the sandy floors and tossed out the abandoned seashell collections.’

Others rent a place for the whole summer. Either way, Boyle and his boss, John Ceepak, have a lot to contend with during the ‘crunch months.’ And that makes for plenty of opportunity for a murderer to strike.

Minette Walters’ The Breaker takes place in the Chapman’s Pool area of Dorset. The Spender family is taking their holiday there when, one morning, brothers Daniel and Paul decide to go exploring. They ‘borrow’ their father’s expensive binoculars and set out. They’re shocked and frightened when they discover the body of a young woman on the beach, and give the alarm. PC Nick Ingram begins the investigation. It turns out that the victim is Kate Sumner, whose toddler daughter, Hannah, has just been discovered wandering along in the nearby town of Poole. Ingram works with WPC Sandra Griffiths, DI John Galbraith, and Superintendent Carpenter to find out who killed Kate Sumner, and to find out how Hannah ended up in town. The solution lies in Kate’s complicated personal life and history.

Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach takes place mostly at Krabi, on the Thai coast. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner, Rajiv Patel, have decided to take a short holiday break there, and have been enjoying themselves. Then, they discover that their tour guide, Chanida Manakit ‘Miss Pla’ has been found dead. They’d grown to like her very much, so this is personally distressing to both of them. Miss Pla’s body washed up in a cave, and the official police account is that this was a tragic accident. But Keeney doesn’t think that’s true. After all, Miss Pla was an expert swimmer. Keeney and Patel decide to take a few extra days and look into the matter. And they soon find that this death was no accident. The more they look into the case, the clearer it is that several people benefited from Miss Pla’s death.

There’s also Don Winslow’s Boone Daniels, whom we meet in The Dawn Patrol. Daniels and his friends are dedicated San Diego surfers, who’d rather be on their surfboards than at their ‘day jobs.’ Then, Daniels get drawn into the case of Tamera Roddick, a local stripper who’s disappeared. Not long afterwards, her best friend, who goes by the name of Angela Hart, is killed. This case ends up being connected to a tragedy from years earlier: the heartbreaking disappearance of a young girl from her own yard. Among other things, this novel gives readers a look at the Southern California surfing culture.

Surfing, sand, and sun are extremely appealing when you want a winter getaway or a summer holiday. But the beach isn’t nearly as peaceful as it seems. Which surfside mysteries have stayed with you? I hear you, fans of Agatha Christie’s A Caribbean Mystery.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beach Boys’ Surfer Girl. Happy Birthday, Mr. Wilson!


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Chris Grabenstein, Don Winslow, Minette Walters, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

32 responses to “We Could Ride the Surf Together*

  1. With Temps here at 31 degrees these examples are very timely. Thinking of the band and sun and surf. Reminded me of Beach Boys Day in LA back some years ago. Capitol records covered their parking lot and street outside in sand and had a beach party to celebrate. Fab times.

  2. Col

    Just recently read an Aussie mystery Bay of Martyrs which kicks off with a body of a young woman washing up on the shore. Tony Black and Matt Neal are the co-authors. Another one I recall vaguely from way back was Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn, a lot about surfer culture similar to Winslow’s book.

    • Both sound good, Col, so thanks for the suggestions. And you’ve reminded me, too, that I’ve yet to do a spotlight on a Tony Black novel. I need to do that one of these weeks.

  3. Pleased to say that my mystery series is set along the beaches of the beautiful Florida panhandle, where I grew up. Used to listen to the Beach Boys a LOT, and “Surfer Girl” was one of my favorites. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane, Margot! 🙂

  4. I have one of Winslow’s surfing-tinged books in my storage back in NZ, as yet unread. Last year I read MAHU VICE by Neil S Placky, which is set in Hawaii and stars Kimo Kanapa’aka, a gay Honolulu PD cop, who’s also a keen surfer. Good read. Would read more of the Mahu series.

  5. Peter Lovesey’s Headhunters features a body on a beach, and a lot of the coastal setting. It is set in a very real place: beach (West Wittering) and town Chichester) not that far from where I live, and very recognizable, which added to the enjoyment for me.

    • I like Lovesey’s work, Moira, so I’m glad you mentioned that one. I admit I’ve not (yet) read it, but I do like a distinctive setting. I’m going to have check that one out. Trust you to add richness to my post.

  6. We’re having one of our rare and mercifully brief heatwaves this week, so a little trip to the beach sounds just about perfect! I really must get around to reading more of the Ceepak books sometimes, though I feel I’ve been saying that for an awfully long time now. I was trying to think of beach related books from over here to add to your examples, but I can’t – maybe the colder weather means we don’t ‘do’ beaches to quite the same extent. But instead we have lots of books set in seaside resorts (a euphemism for places with lots of windbreaks and shelters and indoor entertainment for when it rains 😉 ), like Elly Griffiths’ new Stephens and Mephisto series set in Brighton, or Blackpool where one of her Ruth Galloway novels is set.

    • I know just what you mean, FictionFan, about wanting to get around to reading more of a series. I’m the same way, really. There are just so many great series, and so little reading time. And I love the way you describe your seaside resorts. I have to admit (‘though please don’t tell anyone, lest it all be jinxed! 😉 ), that I spent a delightful few days in Torquay a few years back. Admittedly, quite a ways south, but still, the weather was glorious. As a rule, though, I know what a UK summer can be like… Thanks for mentioning both of Elly Griffiths’ series, too. I like the way she uses the seaside, even if surfing isn’t involved…

  7. Who can forget the murder scene that Dorothy L. Sayers paints in the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery “Have His Carcase” when Harriet Vane discovers the body of a man with his throat cut. Sayers doesn’t spare us details of the body’s appearance:

    ‘It was a corpse. Not the sort of corpse there could be any doubt about, either. Mr. Samuel Weare of Lyons Inn, whose “throat they cut from ear to ear,” could not have been more indubitably a corpse. Indeed, if the head did not come off in Harriet’s hands, it was only because the spine was intact, for the larynx and all the great vessels of the neck had been severed “to the hause-bone,” and a frightful stream, bright red and glistening, was running over the surface of the rock and dripping into a little hollow below.
    Harriet put the head down again and felt suddenly sick. She had written often enough about this kind of corpse, but meeting the thing in the flesh was quite different. She had not realised how butchery the severed vessels would look, and she had not reckoned with the horrid halitus of blood, which streamed to her nostrils under the blazing sun. Her hands were red and wet.’

    • That is most definitely a clear example of a powerful seaside novel, Sbrnseay1. I’m really glad you mentioned it, because I should have included it, and didn’t. Thanks – it’s a gripping scene.

  8. Margot: And in real life there is the Mystery on the Beach Bookstore in Delray Beach, Florida. What could be better than to wander off the beach to get a mystery and then head back to the beach.

  9. There is something about the water that is mysterious and draws you in, just like a good book. Water of any kind is a great element in a story. Now you’ll have me looking at the beach in a whole new light, Margot. 🙂

  10. I was betting THE DAWN PATROL would show up. I know Winslow has written “greater books” than it, but I loved it.

  11. Thanks for the interesting article- hmm, we are planning on visiting a beach soon. Now I know to be careful… Agatha Christie is ALWAYS a winner for me. My mom and I went through a Mary Higgins Clark reading phase – “Remember Me” was a fun creepy read with oceanic themes.

    • Thanks, TNTA. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I appreciate your mentioning Remember Me. Mary Higgins Clark really does know how to create a creepy atmosphere, doesn’t she? And Christie always gets my vote, too.

  12. kathy d.

    Loved The Dying Beach by Angela Savage; great protagonist, Jayne Keeney, as well as beautiful descriptions of the scenery as well as environmental issues. All combined equal a good mystery.

    While not exactly on the beach, Elly Griffiths’ character, Ruth Galloway, a favorite for many of us, lives right near the Saltmarsh near the sea. Shel loves living there, her cottage by the sea.

    Also, our favorite Sicilian detective, Salvo Montalbano, lives a stone’s throw away from the beach. He’s either sitting and having a drink and looking at the water or swimming in it during the day or evening if he’s home from solving murders.

    And, in a change of location, the latest Guido Brunetto book by Donna Leon, has the commissario vacationing on an island in the Venetian laguna. The descriptions of the sea and islands and flora and fauna are just beautiful.

    • Those are all great examples, Kathy, for which thanks. I couldn’t imagine Montalbano not being able to have his morning swim, or Elly Griffith not living near the sea, too. And it’s interesting that Leon has chosen a different setting for the newest Guido Brunetti novel.

  13. kathy d.

    And a friend of mine thinks “Earthly Remains,” the latest Leon book, is her best. It has a slower rhythm than that of Venice and few characters are in it for most of the book. A reader feels very relaxed in the Venetian laguna and on the boat that is traversing the canal while birds hide among the tall grass on the water’s edge. A very different tempo than the Venetian-set books. And no tourists!

  14. Margot, I agree, the beach or the coast isn’t always peaceful, as I discovered in Peter Benchley’s JAWS, THE DEEP, and THE ISLAND, which I read decades ago. All three books have chilling elements of crime and mystery, though, I’m not sure these entries count here.

  15. In A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey, the dead body of a young woman is discovered on a beach, and it is at first assumed to be a suicide or accidental drowning. I would have forgotten the setting except the cover of my copy shows the body on the beach.

    • I’m glad you mentioned that one, Tracy. I’ll be honest: I didn’t think about it when I was preparing this post, and I should have. It’s a fine setup for a murder mystery, and a great fit with what I had in mind here. Thanks for filling in the gap.

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