The last TNB post I submitted looked at the dangers of train travel. This Tuesday, I'm going to take a peek at the perils aboard ship. You might think that a cruise or even a short jaunt on the river is just the thing to take you away from all your cares and troubles, but characters in a Golden Age mystery (and beyond) soon find that murder can follow you anywhere. It doesn't matter if you set out on a big ocean liner to cross the Atlantic as in The Case of the Blind Barber by John Dickson Carr or his alter-ego Carter Dickson's Nine and Death Makes Ten or if you plan a small boating party with friends as in the case of C. P. Snow's Death Under Sail, murder may come along as an unexpected guest. Agatha Christie, of course, couldn't resist staging her own watery crime and gave us the classic Death on the Nile. The ship is the Karnac and it comes equipped with sixteen suspicious passengers plus the famous Hercule Poirot and his friend Colonel Race. Before the journey is over three of those passengers will be dead and the rest will be regretting their decision to see Egypt from the deck of a boat. There are many examples of death aboard ship in the annals of Golden Age crime. I'm going to take a closer look at some Golden Age (and near-Golden-Age) that I have reviewed over the years on the Block.
First up, Inland Passage by George Harmon Coxe (1949). Knox Randall had taken a bruised heart and three thousand dollars with him to Florida. His plan included wine, women and song (well...good times, anyway)--enough to help him forget the girl back in New York who had bruised his heart. He is down to his last three dollars and forty cents when a newspaper ad catches his eye. A Mr. Perry Noland is looking for an experienced sailor to run his boat up north--payment of a small sum up front and whatever Randall can earn from taking on passengers for a pleasure cruise up the coast.
It sounds ideal to Randall and soon he has hired first mate/steward/cook to help with the duties and has rounded up a full complement of passengers. But all is not what it seems--from the initial hire to passengers traveling under assumed names to gangster-types following the boat by land. The owner of the boat is found shot to death and the first mate isn't long for this world either. Randall, an advertising businessman by trade, begins to wonder just what kind of a job he's taken on. He knows that there is some sort of sleight of hand going on beyond the murders and, having fallen for one of the passengers, he makes it his business to get to the bottom of things.
A very similar story takes place in Mary Robert's Rinehart's The After House (1914). Ralph Leslie, who has spent all his funds training to be a doctor, is just out of hospital and fresh out of cash. A bout of typhoid put him in the hospital and while he was recovering he watched a refit of Marshall Turner's schooner-turned-yacht. An intense longing for the sea takes hold of Leslie and as soon as he is discharged, he signs up as a steward for the yacht's first pleasure cruise. His job seems fairly easy, one could say smooth sailing, at first...until one sultry August night when his dream voyage becomes a nightmare of murder. One of the ship's officers disappears overboard. But the worst is yet to come. Before the night is over, three more will die at the hands of a murderer wielding an axe. With panic among the passengers and crew alike and a drunken owner in no condition to take charge, it is up to Leslie to remain calm enough to see the stricken boat back to shore and a murderer caught. IF he can stay alive long enough and that will prove to be no easy task.
And what have we learned here, class? No matter how low you are on cash; no matter how much the water may be calling your name....don't get on that boat. It's not going to be fun and it's not going to be pretty. Trust me.
An innocent little canoe trip through the pastoral reaches of the upper Thames is the subject of The Footsteps at the Lock (1928) by Father Ronald A Knox. The story starts out innocently enough. Two cousins, Derek and Nigel Burtell, set out their trip up the Thames. The goal is to give Derek a voyage in the great outdoors to restore his failing health. It also happens that Derek is shortly, upon his 25th birthday, to inherit 50,000 pounds from his grandfather. Insurance is also involved because, in view of Derek's frail condition, his life has been insured by the Indescribable Insurance Company in the event that he does not reach the celebrated day.
While the journey upstream is uneventful, the return trip does not go as planned. Nigel must leave the canoe at Shipcote Lock in order to take an exam at Oxford. While he is away, the canoe is found adrift below the lock, Derek has disappeared, and there is a jagged gash in the bottom of the canoe. The Indescribable Insurance Company immediately suspects foul play and sends Miles Bredon, a prime investigator, to investigate the circumstances. Is there a murderer along the banks of the Thames or has Derek met with an unfortunate accident? Most importantly, will the company have to acknowledge the claim? Further muddying the waters, Derek's cousin has disappeared as well.
Twenty-years later, Josephine Tey provided us with another fateful canoe trip in To Love and Be Wise. In which the beautifully handsome young photographer Leslie Searle teams up with writer Walter Whitmore for a canoe trip down the twisting Rushmere River to produce a book which will document the journey in words and pictures.There are rumors that the two men may be rivals in love for the affections of Liz Garroway and when Searle disappears from their riverside campsite one evening it looks like jealousy may have gotten the better of Whitmore. But as Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard soon finds out, all may not be quite as it appears and he will need all his detecting talents to unravel the mystery surrounding Searle's disappearance.
Lesson two: Even relatives and colleagues may prove dangerous companions when taking a boat trip. No matter how carefully you choose your companions, be prepared for unpleasant surprises.
And finally, it wise to be prepared for one more unpleasant reality facing those who might think about climbing aboard ship in a mystery novel: Sometimes the boat doesn't even have to leave the harbor to be a risk--as we discover in Rufus King's Holiday Homicide (1940). Real estate magnate, Myron Jettwick, invites friends and family to his boat on New Year's Eve in preparation for a yachting trip to Tortuagas. He invites his ex-wife and step-son, his sister, a rival in real estate and her daughter, and is joined by secretary and the boat's captain and crew. All goes well until his stepson Bruce (who is incidentally also his nephew) gets a telephone call at 3 am. The voice says that it is Jettwick and asks Bruce to come to his cabin. When Bruce gets there he finds Jettwick dead from a gunshot wound in the head. Rather than raise the alarm, Bruce goes back to his room to wait for someone else to discover the body. Once the murder is discovered, he belatedly remembers that he has left fingerprints on a mirror in Jettwick's cabin (a mirror which he used to see if the man was still breathing) and this sends him out on deck to have a good think while waiting for the police to arrive.
On the yacht anchored nearby is Cotton Moon, a wealthy private detective with a weakness for exotic nuts who will immediately put the reader in mind of one Nero Wolfe and his prize orchids. Moon comes equipped with a wise-cracking right-hand man--Bert Stanley, a jewel of a cook, and team of investigators that he can call on for extra legwork. Bruce absent-mindedly throws a rare sapucaia nut and hits Moon with it--gaining the detective's attention on two counts...the nut itself and the early morning antics of his neighbor dressed in pajamas and a robe while pacing in the New Year's snow. As soon as Moon hears the set-up...and Bruce's aunt Emma Jettwick dangles $30,000 plus expenses in front of him...he's on the case. There's a curious collection of botany books, hard and icy spots under the newly fallen snow, nut shells where they shouldn't be, and a mysterious black box that isn't where it should be. There's an ex-lover of Jettwick's ex to find and complainant in a robbery case to track down. Moon will hire a diver and filch a few important papers....and in the end will decide that the group really needs to take that trip to Tortuagas in order to bring the mystery to a close.
So...it looks like boats aren't any better for transportation during the Golden Age than trains. Maybe one should just pick up the old backpack (or haversack) and set out for a nice walking tour. Oh wait...I just consulted my good friend Harriet Vane and she tells me that might not be such a good idea either....
Other boat/ship-related vintage mysteries/espionage for your reading pleasure (links are my reviews except where noted):
Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903)
The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie (1924) -- in part
Charlie Chan Carries On by Earl Derr Biggers (1930)
Murder by Latitude by Rufus King (1930)
Mystery in the Channel by Freeman Wills Crofts (1931)
Murder on the Yacht by Rufus King (1932)
The Virgin Kills by Raoul Whitefield (1932)
Mystery on Southhampton Water by Freeman Wills Crofts (1934)
Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay (1935)
Death on the Bridge by Royce Howes (1935)
The Loss of the Jane Vosper by Freeman Wills Crofts (1936)
Man Overboard! by Freeman Wills Crofts (1936)
Found Floating by Freeman Wills Crofts (1937)
Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1942)
The Five Passengers from Lisbon by Mignon G Eberhart (1946)
On the Hook by Richard Powell (1950)
One Murder Too Many by Edwin Lanham (1952)
Murder in Pastiche: or Nine Detectives All at Sea by Marion Mainwaring (1954)
Voyage into Violence by Frances & Richard Lockridge (1954)
Dead Man's Shoes by Leo Bruce (1958)
Singing in the Shrouds by Ngaio Marsh (1958)
The Widow's Cruise by Nicholas Black (1959)
"The Adventure of the Gloria Scott" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1893)
“The Ghost of John Holling” by Edgar Wallace (1924)
"Problem at Sea" by Agatha Christie (1935)
"The Boat Race Murder" by David Winser (1940)
"Two Bodies on a Barge" by Georges Simenon (1944)
Please feel free to comment below with any vintage (for my purposes, pre-1960) boat/ship (water journey)-related mysteries that you see that I've missed. I know I've read others--but I have managed to forget to label them appropriately and my middle-aged memory isn't producing them....