What with Nicholas Blake’s Widow’s Cruise – on the blog on Sunday – and with reading an excellent 40s book from Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (see below) I got to thinking about great books set on boats. And then we all love a list… so here’s my best shipboard blog entries:
1) Singing in the Shrouds by Ngaio Marsh. One of her best: a splendid collection of diverse and sharply-defined characters, all travelling from England to Cape Town – the grumpy spinster, the TV show host, the pedantic schoolmaster, the Anglo-Catholic priest, the young doctor. Is one of them the serial killer called the flower murderer? And Mrs Dillington-Blick is a fabulous character.
2) Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie One of my favourites of hers. Contains an excellent version of the ur-scene, where one character introduces all the other characters by speculating on their clothes and possible foibles, comparing the people in the dining room to the passenger list.
3) The Golden Rendezvous by Alistair MacLean A splendid thriller, with a takeover of the boat by villains, and one of MacLean’s best and most endearing heroes.
4) The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold – Evelyn Waugh’s alter ego noisily going mad on a
5) And Brideshead Revisited, also by Waugh, contains a memorable love affair on a transatlantic crossing...
6) ….one that, in a weird way, I used to illustrate Paul Gallico’s Mrs Harris goes to New York, although the two books could hardly be more different. You’d have to read the entry to find out.
7) Murder in the Atlantic by John Dickson Carr – great tense atmosphere of civilians crossing the from new York to England in the early days of WW2.
8) The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie. Stars one of my favourite of Christie’s women: I had been spelling her name as Anne Bedingfield for the past 40 years, and someone pointed out to me the last time I mentioned her (this post) that I’d been getting it wrong for 40 years, and it is actually Beddingfeld. Embarrassing.
9) My Friends the Misses Kindness by Jane Duncan. Nearing the end of this inexplicable but compelling series and heroine & narrator Janet is on board a ship travelling from the West Indies back to the UK. Of course she meets all kinds of strange people.
And then we will put in at number 10 this excellent book:
Lady Killer by Elizabeth Sanxay Holdingpublished 1942
[Honey has recently married a much older man: they are going on a cruise to the Caribbean together]
She rose and bathed and put on a yellow linen dress and a yellow sweater, she put two little yellow bows in her long hair, and a pair of blue and yellow play shoes on her bare feet. Cruise clothes, she thought. When I used to model them, I always wondered if I’d ever get a chance to wear them.
She went out into the alleyway, and it pleased her to walk in these heelless shoes. She felt so very well, so light, so nimble. She opened the door and went out on to the promenade deck.
She stepped into the world she had dreamed of; this was what she had wanted. The blue sky, the
blue and sparkling water, the fresh breeze, plenty of people, lovely clothes…
After lunch she sat on deck with Weaver, and when he wanted to take a nap, she put on one of her new bathing suits and went into the little pool.
commentary: This is a delight: a very atmospheric thriller with an excellent heroine, and terrific clothes. Honey is a smart, realistic and quite tough young woman: she worked as a model and then grabbed her chance to marry a man with money. She occasionally misses her old life ‘that was a nice little apartment I had with Annette’, and she rather admires an older fellow passenger called Alma: a very successful businesswoman who made a fortune from beauty products. But Honey is making the most of life, and of the clothes her new status brings her:
When I get a really good tan, she thought, I’ll start to wear white. Honestly I think a blonde with a good even tan, in a white dress, is stunning. But tonight she wore a black evening dress with long full sleeves; she looked slight, delicate and wistful. With a little blue eye shadow.And indeed later she puts on ‘a dress of ice-white sharkskin’ – an item I loved imagining, though I was not able to find a picture up to my standards.
But as the cruise proceeds, her relationship with Weaver deteriorates, and she is also very suspicious that something funny is going on with the newly-wed businesswoman in the next cabin. There are trips ashore to rather unnerving island towns, and a new passenger comes aboard – she is slatternly, but undoubtedly sexy: an adventuress. The author builds up a very difficult atmosphere: and it is clear that Honey is right to be suspicious, but no-one will take her worries seriously. She is a brave and real heroine and I liked her a lot. And the plot was satisfyingly complex, with an extraordinary ending – you kind of said ‘Oh no’, but there was also an inevitability to it. Though the final final ending is by no means certain… I can say no more.
Absolutely great stuff, and short, no more than a novella.
In my edition it was matched with another novella by the same author, Miasma, which was also a short sharp shocker about a sinister doctors’ practice in small town. It was also very entertaining and mystifying, but not as unusual as Lady Killer.
Girl on a boat with the suspicious face from the Australian Maritime Museum, taken by Sam Hood: Australian photographer whose pictures I have used endlessly on the blog.
Next picture from same source. The woman on the left looks as though she may have just eaten something poisoned… and on this ship you never know.