A slightly longer version of the Paper Trails column from October’s National Geographic Traveller India. The November edition is out now, and you should buy it because of the pretty pictures and me talking about Lovecraft and Poe (and some other articles also).
[Spoiler alerts for some Agatha Christie novels, I suppose]
One of the staples of the mystery story is to set a crime in such a place that only one of a limited group of people could have done it. After all, it’s not much fun for the reader who has spent the book struggling to solve the puzzle, if any random passer-by could have committed the act. This is probably one reason why the ‘country house’ murder mystery has been such a classic and successful staple of the genre. In such a story, the criminal can only be one of the house’s inhabitants, guests or staff; and over the course of the novel the reader is given reason to suspect many of them.
But there are ways to limit your pool of suspects other than isolating them in a country house. Agatha Christie offers us multiple examples of this – in her book And Then There Were None a group of people on a deserted island are killed off one by one and the murderer can only be one of themselves. And in Murder on the Orient Express it seems obvious that only a passenger on the train would have had the opportunity to kill the dead man.
Perhaps even more than a train, a ship is the perfect venue for a mystery of this sort. It’s particularly obvious that the criminal must be one of those on board when there are miles of empty ocean all around. Plus, all you need to do to get rid of the evidence (or indeed the body) is drop it overboard! A comforting thought, should one ever go on a luxury cruise.
It’s unsurprising, then, that so many mystery writers have turned to the cruise ship as the scene of the crime. An early example is that of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan Carries On. Biggers’ novel begins in London, with the death of an elderly man who is on a world tour. Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard is baffled by the case. He follows the tour to France, where there is another death. It’s clear that the criminal is one of the tour-goers, and the novel follows them to Aden, Calcutta and Singapore before the murderer is finally apprehended in San Francisco. Charlie Chan, Biggers’ Chinese-American detective, does not appear until a good two-thirds of the way through; but that might just be a good thing. Biggers may have been racially tolerant by the standards of his day, but Chan’s comically broken English and ‘Oriental’ wisdom are rather cringeworthy.
Later writers have adopted the cruise as well. The eight books in Conrad Allen’s Dillman and Masefield series (the first is Murder on the Lusitania) have the two detectives investigate a series of crimes aboard various ships. The protagonist of Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip begins the novel as the victim of attempted murder by her (clearly very incompetent) husband – he has thrown her overboard in the hope that she will drown. Ngaio Marsh’s A Clutch of Constables takes place aboard a river cruise. One might even make an argument for Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, published last year. Ondaatje cleverly chooses not to make it the focus of his book, but the plot to free a captive criminal forms a big part of the story’s background.
So popular is the cruise trope that there exists an anthology of short stories that deal with the subject. Death Cruise was edited by Lawrence Block and contained writing by Nancy Pickard, Jose Latour, and of course Christie herself.
Christie’s most prominent ship story is Death on the Nile, in which a beautiful millionairess is murdered on an African cruise. Less popular is the short story “Problem at Sea”, which also involves the death of a rich woman in a locked ship’s cabin. Both stories feature husbands with seemingly unbreakable alibis that prove to be somewhat less so. (In Skinny Dip, Hiaasen’s rich heroine Joey has willed her money to a charitable organisation – one sees her point).
If I had to pick a favourite cruise ship mystery it would be John Mortimer’s short story “Rumpole at Sea”. This week I reread it directly after rereading “Problem at Sea”, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Mortimer had written his story partly in response to Christie’s. Rumpole and his wife Hilda (“She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed”) attempt a second honeymoon aboard a cruise ship but the mood is somewhat disrupted by the presence of a judge whom Rumpole particularly abhors, and by an overimaginative crime writer. Here too we see the oddly-behaved husband – though his fellow passengers, having presumably also read their Christie, are immediately suspicious when his wife seems to disappear from their midst. Rumpole solves it all, while strenuously defending the right of every man to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Mortimer makes the cruise ship a less sinister place than some of the other writers mentioned here. But I’m not sure, all things considered, that I’ll ever have the courage to board one.