“Death in any circumstances has a tendency to put the wind up you, but when you stumble over it on a pleasure cruiser’s deck you get panicky. Comparable to meeting the devil in Paradise.”
Being an amateur detective isn’t always easy. Sometimes you don’t solve the case. Even worse, sometimes the police beat you to it. Algernon Vereker has recently gone through this humiliating experience, and the memory still stings. His best friend Manuel Ricardo is convinced that the cure for everything is salt water—in this case, a Mediterranean cruise on the S.S. Mars. The moment they step off the gangplank, however, Vereker’s interest is piqued by the strange behavior of the passengers in the next cabin. Rough waters lie ahead, and this time there will be no Scotland Yard coming to the rescue if Vereker fails to spot the killer.
Like Algy and Ricky, I too have recently returned from a pleasure cruise to Lisbon (luckily, everyone survived the voyage). Is this entire review an excuse to post my vacation photos? Possibly. But it is also an opportunity to extol the delights of The Pleasure Cruise Mystery, which overcomes some questionable detection to combine the joys of old-fashioned cruising with one of the craziest murder methods of all time.
It all begins quite innocently. Vereker, a painter and amateur sleuth, is feeling down after being bested by his rival Inspector Heather in a previous case. To cheer him up, and incidentally to help subsidize his own holiday, Ricardo suggests a cruise.
You must get back to mere living. It’s terribly difficult but not impossible. I’m suggesting to you the easiest and quickest way back—a cruise on the ‘Mars’ with me as your inseparable companion. You’ll be immersed in the joyous inanities of a charming social life, while around you, just to remind you of reality, will be the terrible beauty of the sea, vast, restless, indifferent, but profoundly disturbing at times. Every now and then you’ll experience an inexpressible thrill when her cruel grandeur pokes a mischievous finger into the cozy mental tent of your self-satisfaction…I’ve done my rhetorical damnedest—are you coming on this bally cruise or not?
Far from finding the trip restful, Vereker is immediately struck by some odd relationships between his neighbors. Constance and Dick Colvin are traveling with her sister, the lovely but melancholy Beryl Mesado. Though Beryl’s good looks immediately catch Vereker’s eye (“Beauty is always instaneous: character requires a time exposure”), what really holds his attention is an overheard conversation from their cabin that mentions murder.
Unfortunately, before Vereker has a chance to interact with this unusual group, Ricardo stumbles over Beryl’s corpse. The cruise line wants no trouble, so the death is quickly declared a natural one. Vereker remains unconvinced. What was a woman with a supposedly severe heart condition doing out on deck at midnight? Why was Beryl avoiding other passengers before her death? And why are her relations so eager for a burial at sea?
The shipboard atmosphere and the characters are a lot of fun, especially the cheerfully amoral Ricardo and his friendship with Vereker. Along with serving as his pal’s enthusiastic, albeit easily distracted, Watson, he spends the voyage writing promotional copy for the cruise line with one hand, knocking out chapters of his serial thriller with the other, and romancing an heiress with…I guess, his third hand. His antics are amusing, but they also serve a larger purpose, with Ricardo acting as the eyes and ears of the more introverted Vereker. While he shies away from social situations, Vereker is much more skilled at gaining the confidence of suspects one on one. In particular, he wins the trust of Dick Colvin, though the feeling is far from mutual: “there was something insincere about him, something which certainly did not inspire confidence. He was genial, plausible, easy-mannered, but his face suggested shiftiness rather than weakness.”
Vereker’s personality is more low-key than most amateur detectives; there is nothing of the flamboyant genius about him. (The brief glimpses of his frenemy Inspector Heather suggest that Heather might make a more compelling series sleuth than Vereker. Ricardo thinks so too, teasing, “What a pity your old friend Detective-Inspector Heather isn’t here! He’d solve the problem without your assistance and save you all the trouble.”) Vereker is not a natural mixer, preferring to remain in his cabin rather than join the activities on board. To compensate for this, he depends upon social butterfly Ricardo to gather gossip, though Ricky’s impressions are not always reliable and he tends to prioritize his amorous adventures over the murder.
At times, Vereker’s reliance on eavesdropping and secondhand information is a problem for the narrative. The book drags badly in the aftermath of the murder. Time and again, the reader sees a scene play out, only for Vereker or Ricardo to immediately recount it again, in full detail, to another character. For a long stretch, one could easily skip every other scene without missing anything. I actually like Vereker’s more indirect methods of detection, which are unusual and require more careful interpretation of the clues. It’s just that the execution doesn’t always hit the mark.
While the shipboard setting does not have as much bearing on the investigation as I had hoped, it does provide some unique details of sailing on a 1930s ocean liner. It’s easy to forget just how new it was at the time to cruise for recreational purposes, rather than purely transportation. The captain of the Mars is an old salt who remembers the days, not so long ago, when crossing the Atlantic was a dangerous adventure. Now cruising has become sanitized and corporate, a role the captain wears uneasily. Although he is intrigued by Vereker’s investigation, he also recognizes that a murder on board is bad for business, bad enough to cost him his command. Other details of daily life on the ship are also fascinating. I especially enjoyed the suspects’ night out at the movies. To the passengers’ regret, the film is a silent one, purportedly for reasons of fire safety at sea (though Ricardo suspects that the cruise line is simply too miserly to upgrade their equipment for sound).
Despite some investigative shortcomings, The Pleasure Cruise Mystery is an enjoyable diversion. Vereker is an atypical detective for the era, and his relationships with Ricardo and Inspector Heather influence the case in interesting ways. What really makes this title stand out, however, is the murder method. This crime is so brilliant and cruel that it’s frankly difficult to believe any of the suspects are capable of pulling it off. Still, this is exactly the kind of audacious plotting that makes the golden age of detection so special, and I can’t help loving this bizarre solution.
Anyhow, I think Forsythe made an excellent decision in exchanging real-life crime for fictional ones and I’ll be sure to return to his work before long.
As mentioned the solution to the mystery is a complicated one, though the motivations behind the crime being done this way does stand scrutiny. However, I am still undecided as to whether the complexities of this case make it a sneaky good one or make it an Icarus moment for Forsythe, who perhaps overreached himself.
In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel
So, a bit verbose for my tastes, and more Inspector Heather would have been nice as a counter-point, but it’s a complex mystery that’s worth giving your attention to. Well Worth A Look.
For me The Pleasure Cruise Mystery is a near miss. It has some breathtakingly clever plotting but at times it was perhaps in danger of being too clever. Still fun though and worth reading. Recommended.
The Pleasure Cruise Mystery is available in paperback and ebook formats from Dean Street Press.
One thought on “The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1933) by Robin Forsythe”
I especially like the first picture. Nice composition; great color combination!