But the Sailors Threw Him Overboard*

Most killers don’t want to be caught. So, they do whatever they can to hide the evidence. And that means they often have to do something about the body of the person they’ve killed. After all, with today’s technology, bodies often contain evidence that points to the murderer.

One way to deal with this, if you’re a killer (fictional only, of course!) is to commit the murder on board a boat or ship, so the victim, or at least the victim’s body, can go overboard. Of course, a lot of things have to fall into place for that sort of plan to work. But when it does, the murderer has a solid chance to get away with the crime. So, it’s little wonder that we see this in a lot of crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of more than I could.

In Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, we are introduced to Margot Standing, an ingenuous and immature young woman whose very wealthy father, Edward, went overboard and was lost at sea. She now stands to inherit a fortune. But then, it comes out that she may not be eligible to inherit, and that her cousin, Egbert, may be the heir. The papers that would prove Edward Standing’s intent have disappeared, so there’s no easy way to determine who will get the money. Egbert suggests that he and Margot marry, but she refuses. When he insists, she refuses again, and leaves home. Unbeknownst to her, this puts her in danger from a gang led by a man named Grey Mask. They want to get rid of her, so they can get her money. Margot happens to meet Margaret Langton, who’s already mixed up with Grey Mask and his gang (‘though not in the obvious way). Margaret takes pity on the younger woman, and takes her in. And in the end, Margaret and her fiancé, Charles Moray, find a way to thwart Grey Mask.

Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip introduces readers to Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone. He’s a marine scientist (at least nominally) who’s found a way to make water samples seem clear, even if they are tainted. His employer, Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut, finds that very useful; he owns an agri-business that pollutes the water, and has no interest in changing what he does, or in being cited by the authorities. When Chaz begins to suspect that his wife, Joey, has found out what he’s doing, he decides to solve his problem. He takes Joey on what he tells her is an anniversary present: a cruise of the Everglades. While they’re on the water, he throws her overboard. He hasn’t counted on the fact that Joey is a former competitive swimmer, though. Instead of dying, she survives and is saved by former police offer Mick Stranahan. With Mick’s help, Joey plans to make Chaz pay for what he did by ‘haunting’ him. And, as Chaz gets more and more unsettled by the things Joey does, Hammernut gets more and more concerned about their arrangement. And Broward County police detective Karl Rolvaag gets more and more suspicious of Chaz…

Jussi Adler-Olsen introduces his protagonist, Copenhagen police detective Carl Mørck, in Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes. In that novel, Mørck returns to duty after being wounded in a line-of-duty shooting incident. He’s always been difficult to work with, but the trauma of what he’s been through has made dealing with him impossible. So, he is transferred to the newly-created ‘Department Q,’ which is dedicated to ‘cases of special interest’ (cold cases). It’s a move to appease members of the public and the government who believe that the police aren’t doing enough to solve crimes. The first case that Mørck and his new assistant, Hafaz al-Assad take on is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynnggard. At the time she went missing, everyone thought she went overboard in a terrible ferry accident. But Mørck and Assad begin to suspect otherwise. If they’re right, and she is still alive, there may be very little time left to find her. So, the two sleuths are under a great deal of pressure as they try to find out what really happened.

Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective features Edinburgh oceanographer and Ph.D. Candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. His special interest is wave patterns, and he’s working on them for his thesis. In one plot thread of this novel, he’s also got a project of his own underway. Many years earlier, McGill’s grandfather, Uilliam, was on a fishing trip when he disappeared. The official account was that he went overboard accidentally, and McGill wants to know the truth about what happened. So, he’s using his knowledge of wave patterns to try to find out where his grandfather might have washed up, if he did. The search for the truth leads McGill to some dark truths about the island community where his grandparents lived at the time of the disappearance.

And then there’s Jonothan Cullinane’s Red Herring. It’s 1951 in Auckland, and PI Johnny Molloy is hired to find a man called O’Phelan. He takes the case and begins his search. Soon enough, he discovers that his quarry died in an overboard accident. But something doesn’t seem right about the incident, and Molloy starts to suspect it was a case of murder. What he doesn’t know at first, though, is that this death is related to a web of conspiracy, political intrigue, and ‘backroom deals.’ The closer Molloy gets to the truth about O’Phelan, the more dangerous the case becomes for him.

Seas and oceans can be very convenient places, if I may put it that way, for fictional murderers to hide their crimes. So it’s little wonder we see so many overboard ‘accidents’ in crime fiction. These are only a few. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ryan Shupe and the Rubberband’s Walk the Walk.


Filed under Carl Hiaasen, Jonothan Cullinane, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Mark Douglas-Home, Patricia Wentworth

15 responses to “But the Sailors Threw Him Overboard*

  1. There are two recent bestsellers that have precisely this scenario: The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware and Distress Signals by Catherine Ryan Howard. As the latter author points out, it’s even more complicated on a cruise ship in international waters, as it’s not clear who has jurisdiction to investigate the crime, so usually no one does a very good job.

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. Those are two excellent examples of what I had in mind with this post; I appreciate your filling in the gap. You make a well-taken point, too, about jurisdiction. It reminds me of a university course I did in international law. Part of what we did was to review cases and discuss who had jurisdiction, among other things. It was always a tangled issue, but I really enjoyed trying to work it out.

  2. Very interesting post (as usual), Margot. In two books of my mystery series I’ve had two victims wind up in the “drink.” In both cases, the victims were killed elsewhere and “dumped” into the water. In the first case, the victim and her murder proved to be a main plot point. She’d been killed about a month before discovery, so it took dental records to ID the body. In the second instance, the victim was a minor character who got greedy and tried to cross the wrong people. Alas, he was found sans head, hands, and feet. The cops had a fun time identifying him.
    It’s a great way to murder or get rid of a body, especially if there are no witnesses. Simply kill, weight down properly, and send the victim to Davy Jones’ Locker! They may never be found, and if they are, who can prove (place perp’s name here) did it? Unless he left a tiny, careless clue somewhere. Hmm. . . .
    This post has stirred my imagination, so I’m off to plan another murder. Or, did the poor hapless victim accidentally drown? 😉

    • Thanks, Michael, for sharing how you’ve used the ‘overboard’ plot point in your work. It sounds like it’s been really effective for you. What I like about your strategy is that it’s realistic. You’re right, too, that sending a body over the side, so to speak, is a very effective, efficient way to cover one’s tracks. Unless the culprit is really careless, that’s often enough to get rid of evidence connecting killer to victim. And once that evidence is gone, it’s very difficult to tell whether a victim’s death was murder, accident or suicide. Even if you can find that out, it’s very hard to find out enough details to link the crime to the right person.

  3. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    From Mystery Writer/Blogger Margot Kinberg —-

  4. No, can’t think of any examples tonight, but between Cleo and her arsenic poisoning and your foolproof methods for getting rid of corpses, my family better be nice to me this Christmas… just sayin’ 😉

  5. Col

    When I saw the blog post title, I chuckled at remembering the Hiaasen book. Glad to see it came up in the post.

  6. I can think of two books where there is trouble and mayhem aboard ship, even if no-one ends up in the sea – Agatha Christie’s Man in the Brown Suit, and John Dickson Carr’s Murder in the Atlantic (or Submarine Zone).
    And I’m sure there is a story where 2 or 3 people go out in a small boat, and when the boat returns there are fewer people in it – but I can’t think. Perhaps you should write that one Margot.

    • Oooh, I think I should, Moira! Thank you for the idea! *Starts making notes* If I do, I’ll cite you appropriately. And thanks for the mention of the Christie and the Carr. Both do, indeed, show how a ship or boat can be the site of many a danger – and not just from sharks!

  7. Kathy D.

    If anyone can explain the ending to me of “The Woman in Cabin 10,” I’ll treat them to the best chocolate cake in my city … even send them a box of fudge made by a friend. I read that book and the ending made no logical sense. It’s as if someone flew in from Jupiter and was said to be the murderer at the end of a book set aboard a cruise ship. Huh? I am a fan of logic in mysteries, shaped by the Great Detective Holmes to look at evidence, clues, etc., and come to a rational conclusion. No such luck here.
    Glad you included “The Sea Detective,” a very well-written book. The part about the discovery about the grandfather’s death is shocking and painful.
    There is also “The Silence of the Sea,” by Yrsa Siggurdardottir, which has several deaths at sea. Not a personal favorite, others liked it.

    • I’ve had books like that, too, Kathy, where the end didn’t make any sense to me. I’m glad, too, that you mentioned The Silence of the Sea. You’re absolutely right that it deals with several deaths at sea. It’s a good example of what I had in mind here, and I’m glad you filled in that gap. And, yes, The Sea Detective is powerful. The plot thread of Cal’s grandfather’s death is really sad.

  8. Ha- the first thing that comes to mind with this theme isn’t from a novel, but the tv show “Pushing Daisies.” They used the murder-at-sea in the pilot, though their flavor of crime fiction was a little more silly than most 🙂 Mary Higgins Clark used it too, in “Remember Me” – but I think they were diving rather than sailing… it’s been a few years!

    • Oh, my goodness, Anne, I haven’t thought of that show in a long time. I’m glad you mentioned it. Thanks, too, for mentioning Remember Me. Some of her work is really well-written. It’s interesting you mention diving, too. That’s another great opportunity to get rid of a fictional body…

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