Dead on the Water: Shipboard Murder Mysteries

A great detective is never at sea.
It’s probably not surprising that so much mystery fiction is set on cruise ships and similar vessels. This form of travel used to be the only game in town for going great distances across large bodies of water. Nowadays, people are less likely to travel this way out of necessity, but there’s a thriving cruise industry that depends on pleasure seekers taking to the water. For mystery authors, fiction set on the water has the bonus of allowing them to isolate a group of victims/suspects from the rest of the world. Given how much of this fiction exists, it would be foolish to try to look at it all in one short article, so I will stick with some highlights.

Perhaps the greatest of these works doesn’t take place on the ocean, but rather, on one of the world’s most fabled rivers. That is, of course, Death On The Nile (1937), by Agatha Christie, in which famed detective Hercule Poirot must solve a murder while making his way along the river through scenic Egypt. The book was adapted for the big screen in 1978. The movie that pulled out all the stops, combining Christie’s engaging tale with a high-powered cast and impressive location filming.

Edgar Wallace is not well-known these days, but in his day, he was very widely read, turning out nearly 200 books, many of them crime and mystery. “The Ghost of John Holling”, a short story that first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1924 came to the big screen a decade later as Mystery Liner, starring Noah Beery as the decidedly distressed Captain Holling.

In 1930, Earl Derr Biggers published Charlie Chan Carries On, the fifth of six Charlie Chan novels and the fourth to be made into a movie. This time around, Chan fills in for a friend of his, a Scotland Yard detective who has been hot on the trail of a killer. When the cop’s ship docks in Honolulu and he is shot, Chan takes his place on board and sets out to uncover the murderer.

Positively piratical!
The Blind Barber, by John Dickson Carr, is a 1934 novel that features one of his recurring characters, amateur detective Dr. Gideon Fell. Working from a tale told him after the fact by a passenger on the ocean liner Queen Victoria, Fell cracks the case, which has to do with missing film, a missing emerald elephant, a missing and gravely injured woman, and a drunken puppeteer.

The Blind Barber was played for laughs, but things are more sober in another of Carr’s ocean liner mysteries (though there’s some comic relief from another of his regulars, the blustery Sir Henry Merrivale). Nine—And Death Makes Ten was written under his Carter Dickson pseudonym and published in 1940. Among its alternate titles is the more appropriate Murder on the Atlantic. In this one, a group of nine passengers make their way across the Atlantic on a mostly empty ship, during wartime, when such voyages are especially fraught with peril. As if the journey weren’t hazardous enough, there are a few murders to add to the general aura of danger.

None of Carr’s regulars were present for Marion Mainwaring’s Murder in Pastiche: or Nine Detectives All at Sea (1954). But the author gathered thinly disguised versions of Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Nero Wolfe, Mike Hammer, Ellery Queen, and more for yet another murder-at -sea. This gang of detective-fiction luminaries work on the crime in roundtable fashion, a chapter at a time, and the motivation for the killing is quite suited to the proceedings.

Frances and Richard Lockridge wrote a couple dozen novels chronicling the adventures of Pam and Jerry North, better known as Mr. and Mrs. North. In Voyage into Violence (1956), the sophisticated couple are on a Caribbean cruise when they become mixed up in the murder of a retired P.I., who has been killed with a sword. In 1971, Richard Lockridge had his Inspector Heimrich, whom he wrote about in a couple dozen other novels, take to the water in Inspector’s Holiday, during which he’s confronted with murder on a Mediterranean cruise.

At sea with a serial killer
If there are any more famous New Zealand-based mystery writers than Ngaio Marsh I’m not aware of them. She wrote more than 30 novels, all of which featured police detective Roderick Alleyn. In 1958’s Singing in the Shrouds, Alleyn took on a serial killer who left a victim lying on a London dock before setting off on a cargo ship, soon to be joined by Alleyn himself. Murder reared its ugly head again about a decade later in A Clutch of Constables, which features Alleyn’s wife on a river cruise, in circumstances that her husband later relates to a group of students.

If you were going to nominate someone King of Ocean-Liner Fiction, however, I guess it would have to be Conrad Allen, who wrote eight volumes set on various ships that were published between 1999 and 2007. His detectives, a husband and wife team named George Porter Dillman and Genevieve Masefield, have worked to solve crimes on the likes of the Lusitania, among others. Speaking of Allen, there’s also Steve Allen (yes, that one), who “wrote” Murder on the Atlantic (1995), one of nine novels that starred an amateur detective named—how’s this for a coincidence—Steve Allen.

In Murder on the Leviathan (2004), Boris Akunin (Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili) kicks things off in fine style with a rather bold and baffling murder of nine people in a wealthy man’s Paris home. The action then moves to the state of the art (for its day) ocean liner, Leviathan, where a somewhat inept police inspector works on the case, as does Akunin regular Erast Fandorin, who has appeared in 13 books in all.

For those looking for something a little more compact, there are at least two collections of short stories on this theme. Murder On Deck!: Shipboard & Shoreline Mystery Stories, edited by Rosemary Herbert (1998), features shorts by such mystery stalwarts as Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen as well as more mainstream authors as William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The following year saw the release of Death Cruise: Crime Stories On The Open Seas, which was edited by Lawrence Block and includes stories by Christie, Edward D. Hoch, John Mortimer and more.

For those who can’t get enough of this sort of thing, look to the following links for more extensive lists of this flavor of fiction:


William I. Lengeman III is a freelance journalist with a fondness for gourmet tea and traditional mysteries. He writes about the former at Tea Guy Speaks and the latter at Traditional Mysteries.


  1. Clare 2e

    What a list!

    And to add to it, though I know you had to limit yourself, I was reminded me of a very sweet friend of mine, Sarajane Avidon, who was a doyenne of the theatre. She co-wrote a mystery series with Susan Sussman about a singer and dancer (go figure), which included the title Cruising For Murder. When Morgan Taylor gets hired on short notice to replace a departed hoofer for the cruise ship’s nightly shows, she finds–don’t be shocked–murder. It was a fun read, very nice to recall, and you’ve give me a loooong list of others to find. I’m particularly interested in the Akunin and Ngaio Marsh–thanks, as always, for the tips!!

  2. Laura K. Curtis

    It’s really astonishing how many of these there are. Of course, I’ve never been on a cruise for the simple reason that I am afraid if I were locked on board with people and unable to avoid them, I might have to kill someone…

  3. DeborahLacy

    I agree with @Clare2e, this is a great list. Thank you for a great post.

    @LauraKCurtis – Maybe you just need a really, really big boat…

  4. John Fulton

    For some reason, the murder mystery “Fog” seems to have escaped the attention of modern murder-at-sea lists. Published in 1933, it features murder on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner, the aptly named S.S. Barbaric. The whodunnit was written by Valentine Williams and Dorothy Rice Sims and published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. in London and Houghton Mifflin in the US. It is available from booksellers over the Internet. Williams wrote a number of mystery, spy, and detective books. Sims was, to say the least, quite a character. She was reputed to be the first woman in the mile-high club of the fixed wing era (the club apparently dates from the dawn of hot-air balloons). Quite a readable mystery, in my opinion

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