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!