Murder on “B” Deck (1929) by Vincent Starrett

This is my second read by Vincent Starrett and again it is down to American Mystery Classics, who have made reading at least two of his novels a more feasible task. Ray Betzner writes the introduction for today’s read and I found it helpful in situating the writer and seeing what influenced him to write his first detective novel. Murder on “B” Deck is the first of three Walter Ghost mysteries; the other two being named Dead Man Inside (1931) and The End of Mr Garment (1932). Betzner notes Sherlock Holmes as a model for Ghost but having now read the book I feel that he is not an overt pastiche of the earlier detective. In fact, this is Ghost’s first attempt at solving a murder, a task he has been given due to his skill in other fields and I like how, at times, the mantle of “Great Detective” jars and fits uncomfortably with his real experiences of sleuthing. That does not mean he is lacking in sleuthing intelligence, but it does entail him being unsure at points about what he should do next, and it also means he sometimes overlooks standard police activities that other characters have done for him instead.


‘For the passengers aboard the Latakia, the transatlantic journey from New York to Cherbourg promises weeks of rest and relaxation, no matter what class of ticket they have. But after an Italian baroness is found strangled in her cabin, the situation on board becomes more tense. The main suspect soon goes overboard, creating more questions than answers: Did a guilty conscience spur a suicidal act, or was he a witness silenced by the true killer, still at large on the luxury liner.

Enter former intelligence officer Walter Ghost, tapped by the ship’s captain to play detective and solve the murder. He’s joined by his friend Dunsten Mollock, a novelist whose experience with mystery stories gives him helpful insights into the case. With clues including an amateur film, a doll, and a card from Memphis, Tennessee, it seems the duo have plenty to work with. But will they be able to solve the crime before word of the murder makes it into the steamship’s rumor mill, surely sending any guilty persons even deeper into hiding?’

Overall Thoughts

It was interesting to learn that the opening scenario, of a drunken man failing to depart a ship before it set sail, was based on a real-life event recounted to the author by a friend. Dunstan Mollock, detective story novelist and quasi-Watson, is our initially primary character and his fed-up attitude to attending farewell parties, soon has us on side. Near the beginning Mollock is far from the self-effacing type of Watson we might be used to. We are told that, ‘he was never more at ease than when talking about himself.’ Nevertheless, his overconfidence, shall I say, is not too intrusive in the narrative and it also means you know at least once his pride is going to take a hard knock.

Throughout the story his actions are not always the wisest, but I think his failings are presented to us in an entertaining fashion. I enjoyed the sequence of events which led up to him getting stuck on the ship, as they were not the ones I had envisaged. His profession as a mystery writer also means we get some metafictional comments woven into the narrative and in particular I liked how the story plot line he cooks up with a young woman on the ship, in order to impress her, ends up anticipating the first real murder on the ship. The revealing of this parallel is structured well. Starrett is an action and quick pace driven mystery writer and I think this skill can be seen in the way he sets up specific events in the story. In addition, Starrett includes one of his own fictional sleuthing characters in Mollock’s detective plot, which I thought was a nice touch.

The author uses a conversation between Dhu Harrington and Mollock to introduce Ghost in more detail. It is Ghost’s distinctive looks, though, which dominate the discussion, with Dhu opining that, ‘he looks more like the conventional criminal of fiction’ and that her ‘ideal picture of the detective is romantic – something in appearance between an actor and an army officer.’ Given that Ghost is called upon to assist at the crime scene, I had assumed he had some sleuthing experience, but it is at this juncture that we learn he does not, and it is the good opinion of an old friend which plunges him into the detecting deep end. Yet, I like how Ghost is quite honest about his inexperience and how he leans into the Bertie Wooster/Lord Peter Wimsey mould a little:

‘I’m simply good at puzzles, that’s all. the fact is, I’m a damned dilettante, with a finger in anything of interest that happens to crop up. If I’m not asked to take a hand, I barge in anyway. The sheerest curiosity, growing, no doubt, out of a superb idleness.’

However, I should stress that Starrett does not bestow Ghost with stereotypical posh British mannerisms or habits. I think that might have made him tiresome. Another point to emphasis is that the Holmes-Watson dynamic is not overused in this mystery and in fact Ghost seems to prefer to keep Mollock out of the investigation. At one point he even says to Mollock: ‘remember that with the others you are bound to silence. Also, possibly, to immobility. Too many investigators would turn the ship upside down.’

A second death follows on the heels of the first and I liked how this death was fitted into the overall plot. Starrett also provides some interesting clues such as two knitted good luck charms which would have been made for a soldier during WW1, (a really intriguing social history point) and an amateur, home-made melodramatic film. Given that the mystery was published in the 1920s, I felt this latter clue quite forward looking. I am not sure when cinematic evidence was first used in a detective story, so if you know of an earlier example do let me know.

As a beginner sleuth Ghost makes some schoolboy errors, such as not questioning everyone in the vicinity of the crime straight away, yet it does not feel like an unfair ruse on the part of the writer due to the way it is put across. The reader is not sitting there inwardly shouting during the story for Ghost to hurry and interrogate X or look up Y. I think Ghost is quite lucky in the evidence he uncovers at the 11th hour, as without it he would have struggled to complete his case and some readers may question one particular action of the killer. The motive is in keeping with the action-focused mystery that this is. It is almost thriller-ish in tone.

The denouement has a romantic hue to it, which I think will not surprise the reader, but I felt it was marred slightly by some very unexpected victim blaming on the part of Dhu. It seemed unnecessarily harsh and an odd way to wrap things up.  

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (American Mystery Classics)


  1. Thanks for the review. 😊 Given that the sleuth declares that he’s “good at puzzles”, I’d have expected the novel to be more of a mystery than a thriller… But it seems like this isn’t the case? 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for reminding me that I have that first AMC Starrett title on my TBR. I’ll g there first before deciding if this is likely to be for me, but it does sound like a nice change of pace.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I read this one last year and liked it best of the several Starretts I tried. One favorite element is Starrett’s propensity for colorful character names like Walter Ghost, Miss Catherine Two, and Reverend Saddletire. (Though he gets points off for drawing attention to the colorful names as colorful names, i.e., having other characters remark on them, which in my view detracts from the purity of the humorous effect.)

    Liked by 1 person

      • It looks like I at least started The Great Hotel Murder, Dead Man Inside, and The End of Mr. Garment[!]—though I know there were some I didn’t finish. Then I have a record of reading (or at least starting) some shorter works called “The Blue Door,” “Too Many Sleuths,” “The Fingernail Clue,” “A Volume of Poe,” and “The Skylark.”

        Liked by 1 person

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