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.