The vast dining-room was filled with people, well-dressed, animated and often gay. But she found the atmosphere restless and depressing. All these people crossing the ocean were the victims, or the produce, of change. They were not going abroad in the sense that she remembered it. They were getting away. They had torn up their roots….
She found herself wishing that she had not left the quiet serenity of her own countryside. She found herself with the feeling that the great ship was making a passage from the past to the future. The subdued lights, the soft panelling of the great saloon, the quietly hurrying waiters were all conspiring to maintain an atmosphere of false security, sheltering her briefly in an atmosphere of good manners and good taste.
commentary: When I recently did a list of shipboard books, Tracy K of Bitter Tea and Mystery, suggested this one (which I think she owns but hasn’t read) so I got hold of it right away. The Queen of the title is the Queen Alexandra, a transatlantic liner of great luxury with some very fancy passengers. I have done a couple of other books by Murray on the blog – The Voice of the Corpse and The King and the Corpse. (Sensing a theme here, and in fact he produced many crime books with ‘corpse’ in the title.)
Most shipboard books spend time introducing the characters and showing them booking a passage, leaving home, boarding the ship – but this one not only starts well into the voyage, but after a murder has taken place. The dead person (whom nobody has a moment for, and who never becomes a real character) was a secretary carrying a manuscript: a tell-all story set to ruin many lives if it was published. And – you’ll be astonished to hear – several of those featured in the book were fellow-passengers. You cannot fault Murray: he knows how to get a story going.
As the ship heads across the Atlantic the hero, Peter, tries to solve the crime with the help/hindrance of two young women who are in love with him. We find out the backstories of several of the passengers. There is another murder. There are some very creepy moments when we see the action through the eyes of the murderer – I usually roll my eyes at those passages, but this was particularly well done.
I had no difficulty at all in identifying murderer, for reasons I cannot reveal without spoilering, but it was a good read all the same, and the shipboard setting was very nicely done.
I have one rather unusual complaint – the backstories all seem to need a novel of their own, they were strangely fascinating and possibly even more interesting than the main plot, and there are a couple of characters introduced right at the end who play no real role, but might have had their own novels. And then the final revelation – of motive and eventually the guilty party – is a very strange and dark tale. It hasn’t been hinted at in any way, it just arrives out of nothing, and leaves many unanswered questions. But it certainly would have made a novel of its own. And you get a feeling that Murray could have written darker and more serious books.
A strange structure…
One picture is the back cover of my Dell edition of the book.
The others are all by Gervais Purcell, and are part of the collection of the Australian National Maritime Museum. That top picture is a real cheat, because it is dated 1960, but I couldn’t resist it for its picture of the passengers’ lounge – isn’t it extraordinary? And this was an advert for P&O, it was meant to make you want to rush on board. I think they all look like murderers and victims in their own ways.
The woman in the hat IS from 1949 – the hat seems to have a jaunty, nautical air. The others are various pictures he took of ships and cruises.