Robin Forsythe (1879-1937) was released from prison in 1929 after serving his sentence for his part in the notorious Somerset House stamp fraud scheme. Having discovered that real life crime has unpleasant consequences he decided to turn his attentions to fictional crime instead. His first detective novel appeared in 1929 and was followed by seven more before his untimely death. These included five novels featuring amateur detective Algernon Vereker, the third being The Pleasure Cruise Mystery which appeared in 1933.
Algernon Vereker has been persuaded by his friend Manuel Ricardo to join him on a pleasure cruise on board the liner Mars. Vereker is not wildly enthusiastic but he does need a rest and Ricardo is a very persuasive fellow.
Ricardo sees the cruise as an opportunity for some enjoyable flirtations with the opposite sex.
Vereker is almost beginning to regret being talked into the cruise when he overhears a conversation in an adjoining stateroom. Of course the conversation may have been quite innocent but it could also be open to somewhat sinister interpretations. Those sinister interpretations seem much more plausible after the discovery of a dead body on the promenade deck.
The woman has died of heart failure. That’s good enough for the ship’s doctor and for the captain. A death on board ship during a pleasure cruise is not the sort of thing the company wants but as long as it’s death due to natural causes it’s not so bad. Vereker knows there was nothing natural about the death, and to be fair the ship’s doctor has his doubts.
Vereker might be pretty sure the woman was murdered but he is at a loss to explain the circumstances or the many trifling contradictory details that surround the tragedy. I imagine that most readers would have their suspicions about certain of these details and have put some of the pieces of the puzzle together some time before Vereker stumbles upon an explanation. It’s not that Vereker is a fool, but he is painfully reluctant to accept outrageous theories without very solid evidence and in this case only an outrageous theory will explain the mystery.
Algernon Vereker is an amiable enough detective. He is perhaps just a touch more indolent and laid-back than most fictional detectives. His friend Manuel Ricardo is happy to assist as long as it doesn’t distract him too much from his principal interest, the pursuit of beautiful women. In the amateur detective sub-genre the reader expects the representative of the official police to be at best moderately competent - certainly less brilliant than the amateur detective himself. Inspector Heather from Scotland Yard is slightly unusual in this respect - he appears to be a better detective than Vereker!
One of the challenges for any golden age detective fiction writer was that the conventions of the genre required murderers to commit their murders in fiendishly cunning or outlandishly complicated ways whereas the average real-life murderer was more inclined simply to pick up the nearest convenient blunt object and do the deed in a very straightforward manner. Somehow the writer has to convince us that that their killer has both the intelligence and the imagination (and of course the willingness) to commit such complex crimes. It’s to their credit that so many of the writers of that era managed to persuade their readers to suspend their disbelief. In this instance I fear that Forsythe has not quite succeeded in doing this - there seems to be no real reason for the criminal to indulge in such needlessly complicated methods. It’s a pity because the plot is certainly ingenious and well-constructed.
Forsythe tries to pull off an Anthony Berkeley at the end, offering us several alternative solutions. Since all but one of these solutions is quickly abandoned and the ultimate solution is the only one that really makes sense it might have been better to have dispense with the alternatives altogether.
For me The Pleasure Cruise Mystery is a near miss. It has some breathtakingly clever plotting but at times it was perhaps in danger of being too clever. Still fun though and worth reading. Recommended.