I have only encountered the work of this Australian sister writing duo once before, with Murder of Olympia (1956), which I enjoyed and I also liked researching the competition run in a newspaper, at the time, involving its serialisation. So I was glad to finally get back to their work for a nice relaxing voyage-set mystery. Well a relaxing time for me, probably less so for the protagonist…
‘When Guy Connor first realised that Walter Mundy was among the passengers on the s. s. Lorikeet he felt outraged at the trick which Fate had played upon him. As the voyage proceeded, his old hatred of the man, whose ruthless ambitions had destroyed Guy’s father, welled up once again. The humiliations and slights suffered at his hands during the trip made him long more than ever for Mundy’s death. It was one thing to wish a man dead but quite another to condone his cold-blooded murder.’
When I read the synopsis above, I predicted that this would be the classic scapegoat mystery, in which someone with a lot of good reasons for wanting someone dead, is then in their vicinity when they are murdered. Naturally they have not done it but they, or a sleuth of some kind, are compelled to prove their innocence and find the true killer. That’s what I thought the mystery would be like, however it was a good job I had not put any money on this plot forecast…
Now this is not the beginning of a long rant, as the format of the story that I got instead was very good. The tale begins with Guy Connor, on the ship, and it is through his eyes that we see the other passengers. Even before Guy realises that his nemesis is on board, the reader can pick him out of the line-up, and once the penny has dropped for our protagonist, we find out the backstory, (though this is not belaboured).
This novel has two primary interests. One of these is finding out whether Guy can conqueror his deeply ingrained hate of Mundy, especially once the older and wealthier Mundy successfully divides him from his shipboard romance. Guy does not want to be consumed with hatred for the man, as he had seen what it had done to his father but achieving this in practice is difficult. In this he is very alone as he does not feel he can tell anyone and of course Mundy is charm itself on the boat, so people rarely have a bad word to say of him.
The second emphasis of this book is its focus on the run up to/ the expectation of a murder, not on the act of murder itself. Anyone desiring a puzzle-clue traditionally styled detective story, will be disappointed. It is perhaps telling that this is a non-series novel by this writing pair. Guy is an amateur sleuth of sorts, picking up information accidently or intentionally, but the greater interest lies in whether he will uncover a definitive murder plot and if so, what will he do about it. Given his reasons for hating Mundy, the temptation to say nothing is strong.
The writers carefully balance not giving their character too much concrete evidence to go on too soon, (thereby speeding up his final decision), with equally not providing him, and therefore the reader, with too little to work with. I felt the authors were effective in the way they arouse Guy’s suspicions about Mundy’s safety in the first place. It is not too forced, but neither is it too intangible.
Due to these priorities in the text the tension of the book ebbs and flows, though never the interest of the reader. Anyone who loves ship-set mysteries, with a focus on characterisation, should give this book a try. The ship atmosphere is described well and is even summed up by one of the characters: ‘Gossip. The very breath of shipboard life. Bosom friends the first day – exchanging confidences and sun-tan lotions – and a week later cutting each other stone dead in the swimming pool.’ I wouldn’t say the characters are necessarily cutting nor make snide remarks about one another, yet all the same the loyalty of the boat shifts about during the book and nothing stays secret for long.
The romance element of the narrative is interestingly developed, as initially Guy’s reason for pursuing Sophie is to best Mundy, as he too is very interested in her. However, genuine feelings for her spring up, and grow at a rapid rate of knots, so much so that they seem to dwarf Sophie’s own. Regarding her feelings about either men the reader is less well informed, until nearer the end, and whilst she accepts their attentions, Guy sometimes finds her aloof:
‘Sophie Brown was a practical sort of person, it seemed, and worldly, in a way, though that was the wrong word. It was apparent that she was at home in the world, didn’t need anyone or anything to lean on. Not the kind of girl to need to cast her eye round a ship and instantly acquire a male background for her female ego.’
However, I wouldn’t say Sophie is criticised through the narration and instead Guy’s approach to courtship is shown to be unwise at times. Consequently, I felt overall this depiction of a shipboard romance was more maturely depicted.
The only area of the book which I felt needed to be improved was the ending as it is rather rushed and truncated. I did wonder whether serialisation or newspaper formatting affected the denouement, forcing the writers to curtail this section. Nevertheless, the open-ended nature works quite well and avoids overly simplistic moralising.