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 Bookshop.org 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.