Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rufus King’s Murder on the Yacht

Murder on the Yacht, published in 1932, was one of Rufus King’s three 1930s maritime murder mysteries (the others being The Lesser Antilles Case and Murder by Latitude).

Rufus King (1893-1966) was an American mystery writer, and a very successful one in his day. He created several fictional detectives, the best-known being Lieutenant Valcour of the New York police. 

The yacht Crusader is about to sail from New York when Lieutenant Valcour arrives. A man who was supposed to be a guest on the yacht, a lawyer named Hedglin, has caused the police some concern by mysteriously disappearing from a taxi. The taxi driver picked him up but by the time the cab reached its destination Hedglin had vanished.

The owner of the yacht is Anthony Bettle, a very rich man. In Valcour’s experience very rich men tend to have curious hobbies which they pursue to the point of obsession. It soon becomes clear that Anthony Bettle is no exception to this rule but the exact nature of his hobby is not immediately apparent. Under ordinary circumstances Valcour would have exercised his authority to prevent the yacht from sailing until the mystery of Mr Hedglin had been cleared up. Ordinary circumstances do not however apply to men as rich as Anthony Bettle. Even the Police Commissioner is reluctant to give instructions to such a man. Bettle is absolutely insistent that the Crusader must sail at exactly one minute past midnight. The only way out of the impasse is for Valcour to sail with her. Valcour is in any case inclined to believe the answer to the puzzle will be found on board the yacht.

The Crusader is a very large and luxurious yacht, almost an ocean liner in miniature. It also happens to be equipped with the very latest technology, a ship-to-shore radio-telephone link. This will allow Valcour to keep in touch with the Commissioner and with the latest news on the investigations into the case being carried out ashore. Or at least it should allow him to keep in touch with New York.

The guests on the Crusader include a psychic by the name of Carlotta Balfé. Carlotta seems to be connected with Bettle’s pet obsession but finding out the nature of this obsession will require all of Valcour’s skills as a detective. Apart from having curious hobbies very rich men also tend to have a taste for secrecy.

The fate of Mr Hedglin becomes more and more curious. Is he on board somewhere or is he still in New York. There is evidence to suggest the former but there is equally strong evidence to support the latter conjecture. The evidence as to whether he is alive or dead is just as ambiguous. A murder investigation without a body is quite a challenge and it’s even more difficult when there’s not even any certainty that there has in fact been a murder. Valcour has even more to worry when Carlotta Balfé makes a very disturbing prediction. The increasingly erratic behaviour of Anthony Bettle is yet another concern.

Lieutenant Valcour is a puzzled man. The Crusader’s skipper, Captain Jorgensen, is on the other hand a very worried man. The sea is calm and the sky is clear. That’s why Captain Jorgensen is worried. The glass is dropping at an alarming rate and calm seas, clear skies and a rapidly falling glass do not reassure a sailor.

Shipboard mysteries are of course merely a variation on the time-honoured mystery novel technique of taking a group of people and isolating them in a remote house and then adding one or more murders. Shipboard mysteries do offer a writer a couple of other attractive options. Bodies can be made to disappear in a very complete fashion and if that doesn’t add enough tension one can always throw in a hurricane. King avails himself of all of these options.

Lieutenant Valcour belongs to the fairly colourless and self-effacing variety of fictional detectives but there is nothing colourless about King’s prose. In fact his prose is rich, witty and positively sparkling. King is sometimes spoken of as belonging to the Van Dine school of detective fiction. He has the same fondness for setting his murders among the rich and famous and for adding generous quantities of glamour and exoticism. It’s a formula that King exploits very adroitly. 

Murder on the Yacht has a varied and somewhat eccentric cast of characters and a plot that is satisfyingly ingenious whilst still remaining reasonably plausible. Couple these elements with King’s lively prose style, the exotic setting of a rich man’s yacht and just a hint of the occult and the results cannot fail to delight. Very highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. Francis Nevins, I think, has pointed out that the Ellery Queen cousins, Dannay and Lee, were big fans of Rufus King's work, and his name, King, may have inspired the naming of Queen. Just a thought.