Murder on “B” Deck by Vincent Starrett

Originally published in 1929
Walter Ghost #1
Followed by Dead Man Inside

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?

Several years ago Penzler Publishers reprinted Vincent Starrett’s The Great Hotel Murder as part of their American Mystery Classics range. I enjoyed that book’s blend of mystery and adventure enough that I was excited to see another of the author’s works, Murder on “B” Deck, added to the range earlier this year and I would have got to it sooner except its publication coincided with a period where this blog went into a bit of an unplanned hiatus.

This novel, Starrett’s first genre offering, similarly is more of a lighthearted adventure or thriller than detective story. In its memorable opening chapter we follow mystery novelist Dunstan Mollock as he grudgingly pays a farewell visit on board an ocean liner bound for Europe and by misfortune finds himself accidentally caught up in a transatlantic crossing. After considering ways that he might be taken back, he decides instead to see the ship’s bursar to pay for passage and enjoy the trip in the company of his old friend, Walter Ghost.

After befriending an attractive young woman, he rashly suggests that he will write a mystery novel while on board, drawing inspiration from their own trip and the characters on board, and proposes reading the first chapter to her that night. As he reads that night however a crime is discovered whose circumstances uncannily mirror those described in his work and he finds himself assisting Ghost who has been asked to investigate the murder and find its solution before the ship reaches Cherbourg and the killer can escape.

The early chapters of this book setting up the circumstances of the adventure were for me its most enjoyable. Starrett does a wonderful job of creating a bustling sense of energy as Mollock reluctantly heads aboard and conjures up a picture of the cramped champagne party in his sister’s room very nicely. While the circumstances of the writer ending up aboard the ship are perhaps unnecessarily contrived (there is no story reason that he couldn’t just have bought his ticket in the first place), it does establish the book’s entertaining screwball comedy tone and helps introduce several of the characters quite organically.

These early chapters contain some of the book’s sharpest and wittiest remarks and I particularly enjoyed the reading of Mollock’s first chapter, interspersed with commentary from that character that reflects on the genre in a rather pompous manner clearly intended to impress the young woman he admires. The idea that the fictive crime should so closely resemble the actual one that we will spend the novel investigating is an entertaining one and Starrett pitches that idea nicely, playing with the idea without allowing it to become a distraction (Mollock, for instance, is not ever really considered as a possible murderer in spite of the coincidences).

Following the murder our focus shifts to following Ghost with Mollock falling into the sidekick role. The best parallel I can think of here is Poirot and Hastings in Murder on the Links. Mollock is there, listens to the evidence and provides his own theories from the perspective of a mystery novelist, but his actions sometimes frustrate the progress of the investigation. He is, after all, romantically interested in someone who might be a suspect in the case and is as interested in developing that romance as in finding the killer.

Ghost, whose background is a little enigmatic for a good part of the novel, is keen to emphasize that he is not a formally trained investigator. He is smart and logical in his thinking but he doesn’t always attack the matter in a clear procedural way, additionally hampered by the investigation needing to be a discrete one as for much of the novel the murder is kept a secret. It may feel a little untidy but it is also charmingly natural and reminds us that our detectives are approaching this as amateurs.

The main reason that this less disciplined investigative approach doesn’t bother me though is that the book is not intended to be a fair play mystery – at least in terms of establishing whodunit. Starrett does not, for instance, spend much time fleshing out the suspects and some potential leads are briefly addressed but never fully resolved.

The question of why however is much fairer game. Starrett provides much better clueing for the sort of explanation we ought to be looking for here and while we may not anticipate all of the elements of the murder, I thought that the story was a rather interesting one. I particularly appreciated some of the little elements of social history woven into this part of the story and though there are no shock revelations with regards this aspect of the novel, I found it interesting and effective.

As we approach the conclusion to the novel things do get a little messy. There are some fortuitous discoveries that end up putting Ghost and Mollock on the right track. Indeed my biggest problem with the book is that the solution is essentially gifted to them because of something the killer does that feels utterly bizarre and which will lead the investigation directly to them.

Those who approach this hoping to play armchair detective are likely to be frustrated both by this development and also by the killer’s identity which felt rather disappointing after so much build-up. Fortunately I came to this book after that previous experience with Starrett and so I was prepared to enjoy this for the ride rather than the conclusion.

Starrett’s writing, for instance, can be delightful and witty. I enjoyed the colorful cast of characters he develops and I felt he conjured up a really strong sense of the place and time. Indeed it is possibly the social history found in the novel that I think will stick with me longest. I found the discussion of midnight sailings really interesting and appreciated the further discussion of this both as a practice and in terms of how it inspired Starrett to start this story that can be found in Ray Betzner’s excellent introduction to this American Mystery Classics edition.

While I consider The Great Hotel Murder to be a better example of a detective story, I found Murder on “B” Deck to be a more interesting and entertaining read overall. Starrett balances comedy and action well to create a thoroughly engaging and readable novel that sustains its energy nicely. While I would caution that the conclusion may well frustrate, I found plenty to enjoy about the journey from its metafictional elements to its appealing characters and settings.

The Verdict: This flawed but entertaining adventure thriller is certainly worth a look for those in search of a lighthearted murder story.

Second Opinions: Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime also enjoyed this, noting the thriller-ish tone of the story and comments about Ghost’s fallibility and how that is used by Starrett in a way that feels natural.

Bev @ My Reader’s Block describes the book as a pleasant read but felt that the race against time element of the story didn’t give the story the sense of urgency expected.

Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? Your local bookstore should be able to order a copy if they do not have it in stock. The ISBN number for the paperback of the American Mystery Classics reprint is 9781613162798, the hardcover is 9781613162781.

Those based in the US who prefer to shop online can find a copy of the paperback and the hardcover at where your purchases can help support your local, independent bookstore. Full disclosure: these are affiliate links – if you purchase a copy from them, I may receive a small commission.

The Great Hotel Murder by Vincent Starrett

Originally published in 1935
Riley Blackwood #1
Followed by Midnight and Percy Jones

This book was expanded from Recipe for Murder published in 1934

When a New York banker is discovered dead from an apparent morphine overdose in a Chicago hotel, the circumstances surrounding his untimely end are suspicious to say the least. The dead man had switched rooms the night before with a stranger he met and drank with in the hotel bar. And before that, he’d registered under a fake name at the hotel, told his drinking companion a fake story about his visit to the Windy City, and seemingly made no effort to contact the actress, performing in a local show, to whom he was married. All of which is more than enough to raise eyebrows among those who discovered the body.

Enter theatre critic and amateur sleuth Riley Blackwood, a friend of the hotel’s owner, who endeavors to untangle this puzzling tale as discreetly as possible. But when another detective working the case, whose patron is unknown, is thrown from a yacht deck during a party by an equally unknown assailant, the investigation makes a splash among Chicago society. And then several of the possible suspects skip town, leaving Blackwood struggling to determine their guilt or innocence―and their whereabouts.

As nice as it is to see new editions of books by Carr, Gardner and Queen appearing in the American Mystery Classics range, the books that truly excite me are the ones I have never heard of. That unfamiliarity is nice not only because of the variety it brings to a range, but also because there is something rather exciting about approaching a work with no expectations at all beyond what little information a cover and blurb may suggest.

The Great Hotel Murder begins with Blaine Oliver anxiously trying to summon Dr. Trample in the lobby of the Hotel Granada where she had an appointment to meet him. He is neither responding to calls to his room nor can he be found anywhere in the lobby. A friend happens upon her and suggests that they try going to his room and knocking directly but they find a Do Not Disturb sign hung on the door and no response from inside. Finally they persuade the management to unlock the room and enter to find a man lying dead on the bed. To their surprise however it is not Dr. Trample and it turns out that he has died of a morphine overdose although he no syringe can be found and he does not appear to be a habitual user of the drug.

Before anyone gets too excited at the words ‘unlock the room’, I should say that the way that this case plays out serves to minimize that aspect of the plot. For one thing, we are told almost immediately after its detection that the poison could have been administered before the victim returned to the room and locked themselves in. We are also aware that several of the staff possess master keys so the locked door is less a barrier and more a logistical obstacle that the reader will have to factor into how they explain the sequence of events leading to the murder.

Instead this will be a case where we are looking for someone who has a motive for murder. While there is one character that seems to have had the clearest opportunity, it is hard to understand exactly why he would kill someone he appears to have only known for a few hours. In a reversal of the usual structure of the whodunit, here we begin with just one or two suspects and our field widens throughout the novel as we learn more about the victim. This approach works pretty well and I am happy to say that I was surprised by several aspects to the solution.

Our unlikely sleuth is theatrical critic Riley Blackwood, whose involvement in the case is justified by his being a friend of the hotel’s owner. Blackwood is a detective whose personality feels reminiscent of the Ellery Queen school of amateur detectives. He is well-read, whimsical and has a habit of responding to problems with quotations. In terms of the way he approaches the case however I think he also feels like he exists on the edge of a more hardboiled, pulpy sort of detection. After all, he forms attractions to women involved in the case, dives into a body of water to rescue someone and even carries a gun at one point. It makes for an interesting mix of traits that I think works pretty well for this sort of a case.

The pool of suspects that he is investigating make up a pretty interesting mix of characters from a variety of different walks of life. Given the importance of finding a motive to this case, the question becomes one of how the various characters knew the deceased, whether they knew he was there and what may have prompted a murder at that precise time.

These are pretty interesting questions and managed to sustain my interest for much of the book. I will say that while this is a puzzle plot, the individual steps of the puzzle are relatively straightforward and typically a problem raised is solved fairly quickly. An early example would be the importance of a pair of binoculars – connecting the evidence to its likely cause is not particularly difficult, even if you can see why its significance might have passed others by as it does not appear to be directly related to the case.

More importantly, I think the way the story unfolds is pretty entertaining. Blackwood is often quite amusing, as are a couple of the suspects, and there are several moments of tension and action that help to keep things moving. This isn’t simply a short story with some padding to fill out the page count – it is a pretty engaging softboiled thriller that hits some solid comical notes.

Is it a masterpiece? Perhaps not. The plot is a little too simple and a little too familiar for that, but it entertains. In that sense it sits comfortably alongside the likes of Home, Sweet Homicide or Your Turn, Mr. Moto which are also part of this range and is worth a look for those who like novels that blend mystery and adventure.

The Verdict: Pretty entertaining Golden Age fare that blends action and mystery with a likable sleuth.

Further Reading

The publication history of this book is just as interesting as the book itself. The Studies in Starrett Blog posted a series of articles about this back in 2017. The first installment focuses on the Redbook short story and how it differs from Starrett’s previous work. The second installment looks at the 1935 novel and the changes that were made from the Redbook version. The final installment focuses on the film adaptation which diverges quite radically from either of the texts with the author noting in his memoirs ‘Nobody was more surprised than the author by the revelation of the killer’s identity’.