Category Archives: Sandy Curtis

They Might Have Split Up or They Might have Capsized*

shipwrecksIf you’ve ever been on a boat of any kind, you know that there’s always risk involved. Even on luxury cruise liners, there are lifeboat drills and other safety precautions. The thing is, you never know, when you’re out on the water, what’s going to happen.

Certainly, the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down with all hands on this date in 1975, didn’t know for sure what would happen to them. The ship was caught in a sudden storm, and couldn’t make it to safety in time. The loss of ships and other boats is a part of history all over the world, and it’s woven into crime fiction, too. That makes sense, when you think of all the possibilities (e.g. lost treasure, missing people who may (or may not) turn up again, and much more). There’s only room for a few examples in this one post; I know you’ll think of many others.

In Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, we are introduced to Margot Standing, an ingénue who is set to inherit a large fortune from her father, Edward, who’s recently been lost at sea. The only problem is, Margot’s cousin Egbert also has a claim to the money. And the papers that would prove Edward Standing’s intent have disappeared. Egbert proposes that he and Margot should marry, and keep the money ‘in the family.’ This Margot refuses to do, and ends up leaving her home. What she doesn’t know is that she’s the target of a gang led by a mysterious criminal called Grey Mask. The plan is to get rid of her and take her money. She finds an unlikely ally in Margaret Langton, whose former fiancé Charles Moray already knows about Grey Mask’s plot. Together, Langton and Moray try to unravel the mystery of Grey Mask’s identity, and save Margot from their plans. To do that, they get help from Miss Maude Silver, for whom this novel is a first outing. In this case, the treasure wasn’t, strictly speaking, on the ship that went down. But the shipwreck has a lot to do with the plot.

In Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore, Vigo police detective Leo Caldas and his team investigate the death of a local fisherman, Justo Castelo. At first, it looks like a case of suicide. But Caldas soon notes a few little inconsistencies that call that explanation into question. So the team members dig a little deeper. They learn that Castelo didn’t have a wide social circle, and no real enemies. The only lead that seems at all promising is Castelo’s connection to José Arias and Marcos Valverde. Years earlier, the three had been out one night on a fishing boat with their captain, Antonio Sousa. A sudden storm came up, and the boat went down. Sousa died, but the other three made it back to land. And, as it turns out, that death has a lot to do with Castelo’s death.

In one plot thread of Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, Edinburgh oceanographer Caladgh ‘Cal’ is using his expertise in wave patterns to solve the mystery of his grandfather Uilliem’s disappearance. Years earlier, Uilliem had met his wife on ilean Isagaich Mor, Great Fishing Island, settled there, and prepared to start life. Then, he was lost during a sea voyage. Now, his grandson wants to find out where his body might be and what happened to him. That trail leads back to the island and the relationships among the people there. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at what happens to a community when some of the men are lost at sea.

Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide takes place mostly in and around Brisbane. Allan ‘Tug’ Bretton, who captains the fishing trawler Sea Mistress, broke his leg in an onboard incident (on another boat) connected with the death of a deckhand, Ewan McKay. His daughter, Samantha ‘Sam’, wants to skipper Sea Mistress in his place. On the one hand, Tug’s not sure his daughter is ready for the responsibility. On the other, the boat has to go out, or the family stands to lose a lot of money. So, reluctantly, Tug agrees, and Sam starts to plan for the trip. One thing she’ll need to do is get a deckhand. For that, she hires Chayse Jarrett. What she doesn’t know is that he’s actually an undercover copper who’s looking into McKay’s death. He wants to see if there’s any evidence that Tug Bretton is guilty. The police theory is that McKay’s murder might be connected to the Brisbane-area drugs trade, so Jarrett is also investigating any connection the Bretton family might have to drugs smuggling. The fishing trip gets underway, and turns out to be far more dangerous than either Sam Bretton or Chayse Jarrett thought it would be. And, interestingly enough, it’s all related to a long-ago shipwreck, and the mutiny that led to it.

And then there’s Robin Blake’s historical (1742) novel, The Hidden Man. In that story, Attorney and Coroner Titus Cragg works with his friend, Dr. Luke Fidelis, to find out who killed pawnbroker and would-be banker, Philip Pimbo. Cragg and Fidelis learn that Pimbo had financially backed a ship called The Fortunate Isle. A few weeks before the murder, Pimbo’s business partner, Zadok Moon, had filed a claim with the firm that insured the ship. According to that claim, the ship and its cargo were a total loss. That claim, the ship, its cargo and its fate, turn out to be important to solving the murder. One interesting thing this novel highlights is the way insurance companies are traditionally involved in sea voyages.

Of course, not all trips by sea end tragically. Most of the time they don’t. But the fact that they might can add a lot of interesting suspense to a novel. Right, fans of Martin Cruz Smith’s  Polar Star? These are just a few examples. Your turn.


In Memoriam


This post is dedicated to the memory of the 29 members of the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I hope their families have found peace and healing.


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.


Filed under Domingo Villar, Mark Douglas-Home, Martin Cruz Smith, Patricia Wentworth, Sandy Curtis

I Share Your Name*

Books With the Same TitleOne of the most challenging decisions authors and publishers make is what to title a book. Titles need to be short enough so that readers can easily remember them. The best titles also have something to do with the story. Titles really are tricky, especially when you add in the need to make a title unique – something readers will remember.

It doesn’t help matters that there are already thousands of crime novels out there, any of which could already have the same title the author may be considering. It’s true. There really are a lot of books out there with the same title. That makes it hard for the author/publisher, and certainly difficult for the book buyer. There are a lot of examples of ‘matching titles’ out there. Here are just a few.

Both L.R. Wright and Michael Robotham wrote books they called The Suspect. Wright’s novel is the story the murder of eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. From the beginning of the story, we know that eighty-year-old George Wilcox is the killer; what we don’t know is the ‘why.’ As RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg learns, it’s one thing to be fairly certain that someone murdered someone else. It’s quite another to find the motive. Robotham’s novel is different. In that story, London psychologist Loe O’Loughlin gets involved in a murder investigation when the body of a nurse and former patient Catherine McBride is retrieved from Grand Union Canal. Detective Vincent Ruiz takes an interest in O’Loughlin as a suspect, since he knew the victim, was near the scene when the body was discovered, and has other connections to the case that come out as the story unfolds. O’Loughlin is going to have to find out the truth, if he’s going to clear his name. He’s also going to have to find a way to work with Ruiz.

Both Lisa Unger and Steve Robinson have written novels called In The Blood. Unger’s features college student Lana Granger, who rather reluctantly takes a job as a sort of after-school nanny for Rachel Kahn’s eleven-year-old son Luke. It seems like an easy enough job. And it’s in Lana’s chosen field of psychology, since Luke has severe social and emotional problems. Lana is uneasy from the start, but she’s soon distracted when her friend and roommate Rebecca ‘Beck’ Miller disappears. Matters get even worse when it looks as though Lana may know more than she’s saying about what happened. Robinson’s novel, on the other hand, is a genealogical mystery. Jefferson Tayte is hired to trace the lineage of Walter Sloan’s wife as a gift. The trail leads to Cornwall, so Tayte travels there. When he arrives, he locates some modern-day members of the family. He also finds that the closer he gets to the truth about that family, the more danger there is for him. Someone is willing to kill to keep certain facts hidden…

Deadly Tide is the title of a Sandy Curtis novel featuring Samantha ‘Sam’ Bretton and Brisbane copper Chayse Jarett. When Sam’s father is implicated in a murder case, she decides that she’ll have to skipper the family fishing boat Sea Mistress herself. Besides keeping the family business going, she wants to find out the truth about the murder. Jarrett’s been assigned to look into the same case, and goes along undercover as a new deck hand. Together they discover that the murder is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and is connected with some very dangerous international smugglers. One of George East’s novels is also called Deadly Tide. This one, the second in his Inspector Jack Mowgley series, begins with a gruesome discovery. An exclusive designer bag filled with heroin, a cache of money, and two arms have washed up on a beach. Mowgley and his assistant, Sergeant Catherine McCarthy, are just working on that case when they learn that a cleaner on a cross-Channel ferry has found a torso in one of the ferry’s luxury cabins. To get to the truth, Mowgley and McCarthy will go up against some very nasty drugs dealers, and the Russian Mafia.

Karin Fossum and Erica Spindler have each written a book called Don’t Look Back. Fossum’s features Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre. In this novel, they investigate the death of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland, whose body is found by a tarn near her village. It seems odd that someone like Annie should be killed. She was well-liked, and not the target of bullies. What’s more, there are no signs of rape, so that wasn’t the motive either. Sejer and Skaare will have to uncover quite a few local secrets to find out the truth. Spindler’s novel, on the other hand, is the story of Kat McCall’s return to her home town of Liberty, Louisiana, after a ten-year absence. She left after the murder of her sister Sara – a murder that was never solved. Everyone in town believes that Kat is responsible, and they haven’t forgotten. She is determined to find out what really happened, and works with Sergeant Luke Tanner to discover the truth.

There’s also P.J. Parrish and Sam Brandon. Both the Parrish writing duo and Brandon have written books called Dead of Winter. Parrish’s novel is the story of police officer Louis Kincaid, who takes a job with the Loon Lake, Michigan police. He soon learns that the job opened up because his predecessor was murdered. When he gets permission to re-open that case, he learns that the victim was killed during an investigation, and that there are plenty of people who do not want anyone else looking into that case. As Kincaid keeps digging, he finds that several people he’s met are not what they seem. The real action in Brandon’s novel begins when successful New York lawyer Roger Cornwell hires Tom Cavalier to find out whether his daughter Katherine died in the September 11, 2001 attacks, or whether she simply went missing. Cavalier is reluctant to take the case, but he’s a good choice. He’s an ex-military and psychologist, whose specialty was finding soldiers who’d gone AWOL.  Now he’s hung out his shingle in his home town of Rockland, Maine. Cavalier isn’t eager to return to finding missing persons, but Cornwell convinces him that this case is worth investigating.

As you can see, these books do have certain similarities, and one could trace common themes. But they really are quite different stories, written in different styles, and featuring very different characters. And of course, they’re written by different authors. And yet, they have the same title. I don’t really know what the solution to the title challenge is. I face it myself. I do wonder at times how many people accidentally borrow or buy one book when they mean to get another that happens to have the same title.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Go-Betweens’ Dusty in Here.


Filed under Erica Spindler, George East, Karin Fossum, L.R. Wright, Lisa Unger, Michael Robotham, P.J. Parrish, Sam Brandon, Sandy Curtis, Steve Robinson

I Know There’s Fish Out There*

FishingFishing 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.’


Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Domingo Villar, Gordon Ferris, Johan Theorin, John Bude, M.C. Beaton, Mark Douglas-Home, Martin Cruz Smith, Nelson Brunanski, Sandy Curtis

We’ll Search for Tomorrow on Every Shore*

Adventures Are you the adventurous type? Some people like to dare themselves to do new things. Other people are more cautious. And of course there are strong arguments for both ways of thinking. Being adventurous leads to what can be fantastic experiences. It can also lead to an awful lot of danger and consequences for others. On the other hand being cautious means less danger and more reflection, which can be easier on one’s stress level. Caution can also mean one misses out on some amazing experiences. And too much caution can be its own kind of trap. But either type of person can make for an interesting character in crime fiction, especially if the adventurous/cautious trait isn’t carried too far.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit features Anne Beddingfeld, who has to begin life on her own after her father’s death. She’s left with very little money and no strong personal ties, so it’s not long before she decides to get out and see what the world has to offer. She’s at a tube station one day when she sees a man fall to the tracks in what looks at first like a terrible accident. When a piece of paper falls out of the victim’s pocket, Anne picks it up and by chance, figures out that the note on the paper refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse she books passage on the ship and soon gets herself mixed up in a case involving stolen diamonds and international crime. Anne’s adventurous nature makes sense given her age and her circumstances and in this story it works.

In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, we meet Andreas Winther. He’s a young man who enjoys taking risks. He’s very much the easily bored type who’s always up for an adventure. He’s somewhat of a non-conformist and doesn’t have a lot of close friends, but he is good friends with Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. Together the two of them go drinking, try new things and so on. Occasionally they get into trouble, but usually it’s nothing terribly serious. Then one day Andreas’ adventurous nature pushes him and Zipp into some dangerous adventures that go too far. Certainly they go farther than Zipp intended. At the end of that day Andreas disappears. His mother Runi worries about her son and goes to the police, but the police don’t take her concerns seriously at first. Then when more time passes and Andreas still hasn’t returned, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre begin to look into what happened. Zipp is in the best position to know exactly where his friend is and what happened but he’s completely unwilling to co-operate (And no, it’s not because he killed Andreas. He didn’t). Bit by bit though, Sejer and Skarre learn about the kind of person Andreas is, and they find out the truth about his disappearance. In this case, Andreas’ adventurous personality fuels what happens in the book and makes sense.

So does Sam Bretton’s adventurousness in Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide. Sam is the daughter of Alan ‘Tug’ Bretton, captain of Sea Mistress, a fishing trawler based in Brisbane. When Bretton is accused of murdering Ewan McKay, deckhand from another ship, Sam takes his place as skipper. She’s actually got two motives for doing that. One is that if the family boat doesn’t go out, creditors may take it. The other is that she knows her father isn’t guilty of murder and wants to find out who really killed Ewan McKay. What Sam doesn’t know at first is that Chayse Jarrett, the deckhand’s she’s just hired for this trip, is an undercover cop who’s been assigned to find out whether Bretton killed McKay and whether Sea Mistress is involved in recent drugs activity in the area. First separately and then together, Sam Bretton and Chayse Jarrett look for the murderer and go up against some fairly nasty drugs smugglers. In this novel, Sam Bretton’s adventurousness makes sense; she’s the daughter of a fishing boat captain and she’s been to sea many times. For her, risk is a part of life, and Curtis doesn’t make her completely foolhardy. So we can believe that someone like Sam Bretton could exist.

But of course not all fictional protagonists, even in murder mysteries, are that adventurous. For instance, in Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we meet mystery novelist Martin Canning. He’s never been one to take risks. In fact, he’s happiest when he’s safely writing his novels that take place in a very ‘safe’ environment. Then one day he happens to be ‘on the scene’ when Paul Bradley brakes his silver Peugot in time to avoid hitting a pedestrian. The car behind Bradley’s, a blue Honda, doesn’t stop and hits the Peugot. The two men get into an argument that ends with the Honda driver brandishing a baseball bat. Now Bradley is in danger for his life and Canning, who’s never done a courageous thing in his life, throws his laptop case at the Honda driver, saving Bradley’s life. Out of a sense of duty, Canning accompanies Bradley to a local hospital to make sure he’s all right, and that’s how Canning gets drawn into a complicated web of fraud, theft and murder. It adds a real level of tension to this novel to see how the completely unadventurous Canning reacts to this adventure that’s been forced on him.

That happens in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move too. Science fiction writer Zach Walker moves his family from what he sees as the too-dangerous city to a newly-developed suburb called Valley Forest Estates. Walker may write about scary science fiction creatures but in his real life he’s a very cautious person who avoids risks whenever he can. In a bitter twist of irony, he gets drawn into a frightening adventure when he goes to the community’s main sales office one day to lodge a complaint. While he’s there, he witnesses an argument between one of the community’s developers and local eco-activist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker is the one who finds Spender’s body lying in a local creek. Now, despite his best efforts, Walker gets involved in that murder and another one, as well as a case of fraud and corruption. Walker’s cautious nature highlights the irony that adds some ‘life’ and humour to this novel.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, beginning psychologist Stephanie Anderson has to face her own over-cautious self. She’s been cautious and careful – certainly not spontaneous – since her younger sister Gemma was abducted seventeen years earlier. No trace of Gemma was ever found, not even a body. Stephanie’s gone on with her life as best she could, but she’s been cautious and careful, especially about relationships. Then she begins to work with a new patient Elizabeth Clark, who tells her a story that’s eerily like her own. Elizabeth’s younger sister Gracie was abducted several years earlier and in that case too, no trace of the child was ever found. When she really absorbs this story, Anderson decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and look for the person responsible for both girls’ disappearances. Her choice leads her on a trip from Dunedin, where she lives and works, back to Wanaka, where she grew up. Along the way she finds the ability to let go and have an adventure, as well as the courage to face her past. In this novel there’s a clear connection between Anderson’s cautious nature and her past; her personality makes perfect sense and works for the story. So does her evolution as the story goes on.

2013 global reading challenge

What about you? Do you take on adventures? Even if you don’t in your real life, you can in the books you read. How? Let me suggest the 2013 Global Reading Challenge, being hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. This challenge invites you to read books from all over the world and gives you the chance to have some adventures without actually being in any danger. Well, unless you count the danger of missing your bus, tram or train stop because you’re caught up in a story. 😉    Go ‘head – check it out! Find out more information and give it a go. Dare ya!




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Come Sail Away.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Karin Fossum, Kate Atkinson, Linwood Barclay, Paddy Richardson, Sandy Curtis

And I Go Where the Ocean is Deep*

BoatsFor a lot of people there’s something exciting about boats and being on boats. It may be the lure of adventure or it may be the connection with the sea. And of course, there’s the reality that for plenty of people, boats represent their livelihood. Whatever the reason is, we seem to have a fascination with boats and ships. And if you think about it, boats and ships, with their dangers, legends and so on make very effective contexts for crime fiction novels. If you add to that the fact of disparate people being brought together, as can happen on a boat, it’s easy to see how boats and ships could figure into crime fiction. Of course, one post isn’t nearly enough space for me to mention all of the novels where boats and ships figure into the plot, but here are a few to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, newlyweds Linnet and Simon Doyle are on their honeymoon trip – a cruise of the Nile. On the second night of the journey Linnet is shot. The first suspect is Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, whose fiancé Simon was before he met Linnet. But it’s soon proven that Jackie could not have committed the crime. Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race are on the same cruise and work together to find out who the murderer is. In this novel, it isn’t the actual boating or the ship itself that figures into the crime. Rather, Christie looks at the interactions of the different personalities who are on the same ship at the same time.

So does Ngaio Marsh in A Clutch of Constables. Painter and sculptor Agatha Troy decides to take a cruise on the Zodiac, but she soon finds that this isn’t going to be the relaxing and enjoyable trip she’d planned. First, one of the passengers is left behind and is later found murdered. Then another passenger is drowned. In the meantime and possibly related to the murders, Troy finds that an international art forger known only as the Jampot may very well be among those aboard the ship. As Troy gets more deeply involved in the mystery, she writes letters to her husband Inspector Roderick Alleyn and in them she tells him what’s happened. In an interesting plot strategy, Alleyn uses those letters to share the crimes and their solutions to a group of students in a class he’s teaching.

John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee lives aboard a boat called The Busted Flush. As we learn in The Deep Blue Goodbye, he won the boat in a poker game (hence its name). McGee calls himself a ‘salvage consultant.’ What that really means is that he helps people recover what’s been stolen from them. For instance, in The Deep Blue Goodbye he agrees to track down something that was stolen from his client Catherine Kerr by the father of her son Davie. The big challenge at first is that Kerr’s not even sure what was stolen. McGee finds out what was taken and is able to track down both the stolen property and the thief. McGee takes in payment half of whatever is recovered for his clients and they are usually more than grateful to pay his fee. What’s interesting is that McGee could probably afford to live in a house if he wanted, but he doesn’t. He prefers his boat and his life on the sea. In several places in that novel (and in the other novels in the series too), we see McGee working on his boat. He paints, cleans, makes repairs and so on. That side of him adds depth to the character.

Carole Sutton comes from a family of boat builders, so it’s only natural that her love of boats should come through in her novels. In Ferryman, we meet Steve Pengelly, who moves to Guernsey to start over, as the saying goes. There, he meets Angela DuPont, who connects him with the seller of a beautiful thirty-eight-foot sailboat that Pengelly happily buys. His new life falls apart when Angela disappears and he is arrested and tried for her murder. There’s forensic evidence against him too and he is in fact convicted and imprisoned. Then, two years later, Angela’s body washes ashore. What’s shocking is that it’s proven that she died only a short time before her body was discovered. This means that Pengelly wasn’t guilty of the crime. Now DI Alan Grimstone has to go back to the beginning to find out the truth of the matter.

In Sutton’s And the Devil Laughed, DS Hannah Ford returns to work after taking some leave for post-traumatic stress. She’s assigned to go to Draper’s Wharf on Australia’s Parramata River to investigate possible drugs activity in the area. Posing as a journalist she settles in and begins to get a sense of the place. She soon discovers that there’s been a recent tragedy in town. Local barmaid Victoria Brown was raped and murdered. Her killer hasn’t been caught, so Ford begins to ask questions about the case even though she hasn’t been officially asked to do so. Part of the reason for her interest in the case comes from her desire to prove herself fit for work. Another part comes from the fact that she was distantly related to the victim. As Ford investigates this case as well as the drugs smuggling, we get a real feel for the local boating and boat-building culture.

Boats have long been used for smuggling of course, and we get a real sense of that in Jeffrey Stone’s Play Him Again, which takes place in 1920’s Los Angeles during the years of Prohibition in the U.S.  In that novel we meet Matt ‘Hud’ Hudson, who makes his money smuggling alcohol on his boat The River Belle. His dream is to become a film-maker in the newly-developing Hollywood scene and at the moment, he’s using his smuggling income until he can. When his friend Danny is murdered, Hud decides to find out who the murderer is. He soon finds out though that he’s up against several forces. First, there are rival smuggling groups and a large criminal gang that’s moving into the area. There’s also the fact that the smuggling Hud’s doing is illegal, so the police aren’t going to be co-operative. But Hud keeps looking for answers and he discovers how Danny’s murder is related to the ‘rum-running’ and to the developing film industry. There are plenty of scenes aboard The River Belle in this novel, so we get a chance to see what a boat that’s been refitted for smuggling is like.

Of course more than just about anything else, boats are used for fishing and that’s the focus of Domingo Villar’s Death on a Galician Shore. Vigo police inspector Leo Caldas and his team are called in when the body of local fisherman Justo Castelo is discovered. At first it looks as though he committed suicide. But little clues suggest that he might have been murdered, so Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez look into the case further. As they find out about Castelo’s background, they discover that Castelo’s murder may be related to a 1996 tragedy in which Castelo and two other fishermen José Arias and Marcos Valverde nearly drowned while they were aboard a fishing vessel. Their captain Antonio Sousa did drown and none of the survivors has been the same since then. Caldas and Estevez have to learn exactly what happened that night to get to the truth about Castelo’s death. This novel shows readers what the fisherman’s life is like, from early-morning fish markets to sudden and terrible storms to building and maintaining fishing boats.

We also see the fishing life depicted in Sandy Curtis’ Deadly Tide. Alan ‘Tug’ Bretton is the captain of Sea Mistress, a trawler based in Brisbane. He’s accused of murdering Ewan McKay, the deckhand from another boat. Bretton claims that he’s innocent, but all of the evidence is against him. There’s also a possibility that Bretton and Sea Mistress may be connected to the drugs trade. Bretton’s daughter Samantha ‘Sam’ believes her father is innocent and she wants to find out who killed McKay. Besides, if the family-owned trawler doesn’t go out to sea, the ship may be lost to creditors. So Bretton reluctantly turns the skipper position over to his daughter. Sam begins both to start the fishing season and to try to find out who killed Ewan McKay. What she doesn’t know is that Chayse Jarrett, the deckhand she’s just hired, is an undercover cop who’s been assigned to the McKay murder too. As the two of them, first separately and later together, investigate the murder, we also see what it’s like to live on and operate a fishing trawler.

Whether they’re used for work, sport, relaxation or smuggling, boats and boating have been an essential part of our lives for millennia. Their fascination still lures a lot of people. Do you see the appeal? I know I’ve probably not mentioned the boat-related crime novels you like best because there’s not enough space to mention them all. So now it’s your turn. Which gaps have I left?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Downeaster ‘Alexa.’


Filed under Agatha Christie, Carole Sutton, Domingo Villar, Jeffrey Stone, John D. MacDonald, Ngaio Marsh, Sandy Curtis