Fishing has been woven into our human experience since people first learned how to catch fish. Although people all over the world eat seafood, you really see the fishing culture in seaside or lakeside areas, for obvious reasons.
Fishing is big business, too. Whether it’s sport fishing or commercial fishing, there’s a lot of money to be made in the industry. Fishing is so deeply ingrained into human history that it makes complete sense that it’s also an important part of crime fiction. There’s no possible way for me to mention all of the novels in which fishing plays a role; but here are a few examples.
In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Mystery, Reverend Dodd, vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Sea, takes an interest in the shooting murder of Julius Tregarthan. Dodd’s friend Dr. Pendrill has been called to the scene, and Dodd comes along. Soon enough, it’s clear that this case isn’t going to be easy. The victim was shot through the open window of his sitting room. Three shots seem to have been fired, all from slightly different angles. So one possibility is that there were actually three assailants. Other evidence, though, makes that unlikely. It doesn’t help matters that more than one person had a motive for murder, so there are several suspects. As he follows leads, Dodd finds that he gets some very valuable information from a local man who sometimes takes his fishing boat out.
Lots of people depend on fishing for a living, even if they don’t work for a large commercial outfit. For instance, in Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, Vigo Inspector Leo Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez investigate the death of a local fisherman, Justo Castelo. In many ways, the death looks like a suicide. But little clues suggest to Caldas that Castelo might have been murdered. The only problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much motive. Castelo wasn’t wealthy, and he lived a quiet life. In fact, he preferred not to mix very much socially. Then, Caldas discovers something important. In 1996, Castelo and two other fishermen were on board a boat with Captain Antonio Sousa when a terrible storm struck. Sousa was lost in the storm, but the other three made it back to land. They’ve never spoken of the incident since, but Caldas finds that it plays a role in Castelo’s death. This novel offers an interesting look at the small-time fishing life, with boats coming in early in the morning to sell their catch at the local warehouses, and the area restaurants and individual buyers coming in later to make their choices. It’s not an easy life.
We also see that in Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide. Allan ‘Tug’ Bretton has captained his Brisbane-based family boat Sea Mistress for quite a long time. But he’s got a broken leg from an incident that ended in the murder of Ewan McKay, a deckhand from another trawler. Bretton’s daughter Samantha ‘Sam’ wants very much to take her father’s place as skipper until he’s back on duty. Her logic is that if Sea Mistress doesn’t go out, the family fishing business will suffer and may fail. Her father finally agrees, and Sam prepares to gather her crew. Her new deckhand is Chayse Garrett, an undercover police officer who’s investigating McKay’s death. The police suspect that Bretton killed McKay, and that he might be involved in the drugs smuggling trade; Garrett’s job is to find evidence bearing on that theory. Sam’s not aware of Garrett’s identity as a detective, but she has her own reasons for wanting to bring down McKay’s killer and clear her father’s name. As Sea Mistress’ crew looks for answers, we learn a lot about life on a modern trawler. We also learn how the small-time fishing industry can sometimes be useful to the smuggling trade.
Smuggling also happens in the larger commercial fishing trade. In Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, for instance, Arkady Renko has been assigned to work as a crew member on the Soviet fishing ship Polar Star. It’s a punishment for his pursuit of highly-placed Party officials (read Gorky Park for the details). Renko is fed up anyway with policing, especially if it doesn’t really change things. But he’s drawn into a case of murder when one of his crew mates, Zina Patiashvili, is hauled out of the ocean with the day’s catch. At first, there seems no motive for the murder. The victim was a galley worker, like everyone else, and hadn’t any obvious enemies or wealth. But soon enough, Renko learns that there was another side to her. She was involved in smuggling and blackmailing, and some very important people are implicated.
Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano lives and works in fictional Vigàta, on Sicily. So as you can imagine, there’s lots of fishing integrated into that series. For example, in one plot thread of The Snack Thief, Montalbano investigates the shooting of a Tunisian sailor who happened to be aboard an Italian fishing boat. Montalbano finds that he was killed when a Tunisian boat fired on the Italian boat. The question then becomes: how accidental was the death, really? In that thread of the story, Camilleri makes reference to the long-standing unease between Tunisia and Sicily over water, territory and fishing rights.
Many people enjoy sport fishing and fishing as a hobby. So there’s also a lucrative business in providing places and equipment for fishing enthusiasts. Just ask Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowksi. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake. But they own Stuart Lake Lodge, a holiday fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Clients come from many different places, including other countries, to spend time fishing and relaxing. It sounds harmless enough, but in Burnt Out, the lodge is burned, and a body discovered in the ruins of the fire. Now, gossip spreads that Bart is guilty of arson and very likely murder, too. He knows that he’ll need to find out what happened to his family’s business if he’s to clear his name. The Bartowskis aren’t going to be the same after this tragedy, but Bart’s determined to at least preserve the family’s integrity.
Scotland’s another popular place for sport fishing. Just ask M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth. He’s the local bobby for the village of Lochdubh, but he’d just as soon relax with a fishing line. So he understands the appeal of John and Heather Cartwright’s Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing, to which we’re introduced in Death of a Gossip. The Cartwrights open a new class, hoping that all will go well. It doesn’t. One of the participants is Jane Maxwell, gossip columnist for the London Evening Star. She wants new fodder for her column, and is willing to go through everyone’s proverbial closet, looking for skeletons. When she’s found strangled with casting line, it’s clear that someone in that fishing class didn’t want her to find out too much. Macbeth investigates, and as he does, we learn a bit about the modern fishing resort. There are a lot of other crime-fictional mentions of the Scottish fishing life, too, including Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed and Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, to name just two.
There are many, many other examples of fishing in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Johan Theorin’s Gerloff Davidsson). Which do you like best?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Downeaster ‘Alexa.’