Today’s read has an eye-catching cover, which certainly persuaded me to pause whilst scrolling through Netgalley and take a closer look at it. It transpired to be a ship-bound mystery set in the 1920s and it has been a while since I have read a murder at sea, so decided to give it a go.
‘November 1924. The Endeavour sets sail from Southampton carrying 2,000 passengers and crew on a week-long voyage to New York. When an elderly gentleman is found dead at the foot of a staircase, ship’s officer Timothy Birch is ready to declare it a tragic accident. But James Temple, a strong-minded Scotland Yard inspector, is certain there is more to this misfortune than meets the eye. Birch agrees to investigate, and the trail quickly leads to the theft of a priceless painting. Its very existence is known only to its owner . . . and the dead man. With just days remaining until they reach New York, and even Temple’s purpose on board the Endeavour proving increasingly suspicious, Birch’s search for the culprit is fraught with danger. And all the while, the passengers continue to roam the ship with a killer in their midst . . .’
The rhythm of the opening and its structure reminded me of song ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ by Björk. It is a chilly November morning and one woman, and her child are braving the wet weather, after being confined in less than ideal third-class accommodation on the ship. Things are grey and drizzly, but to some degree quiet and peaceful, when suddenly the little boy’s screams punctuates the silence. Naturally it is he who finds the first body.
Tom Hindle writes this section well as I thought it was good that this initial discovery of the body contains humour, yet also the initial clues and questions that the reader might not want to consider. For example, he writes:
‘Another joked loudly that it seemed the toffs in first-and-second-class didn’t even have the decency to die in their own sections of the ship. He was greeted with a small chorus of gruff laughter from the rowdiest of his companions, but it was perhaps a more astute observation than he realised. The gentleman lying on the deck was the only one wearing anything resembling a suit.’
However, after the first chapter the tale is narrated solely by Tom Birch, an officer from the ship, who goes on to be a “Watson” of sorts to the police detective, James Temple, who decides the death must be investigated properly. I have to admit that I did not click with Birch. I found our introduction to him quite maudlin, his emotional baggage falling into well-worn grooves. Perhaps because his personal woes are thrust upon us in the first paragraphs of our introduction to him, I got put off, finding them forced and trite. Maybe I am the sort of reader who wants to build up to a character’s personal problems.
James Temple, the other key protagonist, was also a character I struggled to engage with, although for different reasons. Initially, I quite liked his combative verbal sparring with the ship’s captain, who is reluctant to let Temple investigate. Here’s is an excerpt of their interview:
‘“Even if I did give my consent, we dock on Sunday. What kind of investigation do you plan to conduct in the space of just four days?”
“If you’re correct and this fellow’s death was truly an accident, a short one.”
“And if I’m wrong? […] If there is a crime to be pursued, what sort of investigation do you suppose you’ll conduct then?” […]
“An efficient one.”’
Moreover, once the captain says he can investigate, but must let Birch accompany him, we see a comic cop show trope of two characters forced together who don’t get along, although I would say the animosity originates from Temple: ‘Temple twisted round to inspect me and our eyes locked. They were like shards of ice; with not even the slightest attempt to hide his utter contempt for the captain’s decision.’ However, this relationship dynamic is not played for laughs. Temple is depicted as a very unsympathetic figure and whilst the narrative does go on to reveal his backstory, (which wasn’t all that surprising), I didn’t find this greater understanding of him made him any more appealing as a character. Furthermore, his relationship with Birch only becomes more toxic and deeply unpleasant to watch. Reading this book at times made me feel like I was stuck in a room with two people having a blazing row, but not being able to leave. It was strange to feel awkward in that way. At one stage Birch thinks ‘that there was something very wrong with this detective,’ yet as the story unfolds, I would say the reader starts thinking there is something very wrong with Birch too. Birch is not verbally unkind like Temple is, but his guilty feelings and self-absorbed pain became repellent.
Despite my issues with the central duo, and the fact their bumpy start slows the pace of the book, Temple does then quickly turn up a lot of information which suggests that the death at the start of the story was not an accident, but murder. I felt this information made the case feel more tangible and concrete. The reader feels like they have something to work with and puzzle over. Hindle also provides some good end of chapter reveals. One which stuck in my mind was an interview of Arthur Blake. During the interview the narrative draws our attention to the fact a vest is covering something up on his desk, but it is only at the end of the chapter that we find out what it is. The timing was effective here. Misdirection and the fallible nature of some of the clues were also pleasing elements to see in the text from time to time.
As I was reading this book it began to feel like a quest of sorts. There is a definite sense of a journey, pitted with obstacles, as well as in-team squabbling and acrimony. However, our detective and his sidekick are far from heroic, with their anti-hero qualities coming to the fore as the novel progresses. The detective as a hero is not a portrayal you will find in this story. Temple is something of a riddle, exuding danger and being perceived as a threat, although notes of vulnerability creep in.
This was a story that started well but it took me a long time to warm up to it. By the 75% mark I had begun to be a bit more invested in what the ending might reveal. But given that the story takes place over just four days, it feels like we take a long time getting there and unfortunately when we do reach the concluding chapters of the novel, the plot sharply goes in another direction. I imagine it is intended to be a high impact ending, but I found myself recoiling from it. Consequently, I finished the mystery deflated and in a low mood. This is not something I experience very often when reading. I like to understand why I have negative emotional reactions to a book, and I hope it is useful to unpick it in the review so readers can see if that sounds like a problem they may or may not have. The emotional reaction by itself is perhaps less helpful. I think the crux of the problem was the failure to engage with either of the two protagonists, as that made the middle of the story drag and then affected my response to the denouement.
I am not sure this is a novel that knows what sort of mystery it wants to be. The surface level details and tropes situate it more as a modern novel making nods towards Golden Age detective fiction. It begins with a list of notable passengers for instance and the WW1 experiences of one of the main characters, provides echoes of other modern day written, but 1920s-set mysteries, such as the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. However, the tone of the book, the dysfunctionality and unpleasantness of the characters, and the way they approach detective work, place the narrative more into the hard-boiled camp. Those seeking the former “Maisie Dobb” style may struggle with the central duo and might dislike the ending, whilst those who love the latter style may find the denouement more appealing with its Patricia Highsmith vibes but might not relish the long time the narrative takes to arrive at its destination.
Source: Review Copy (Netgalley)