Murder Takes a Holiday

cruise ship

A new issue in editor Janet Rudolph’s excellent Mystery Readers Journal, in which mystery and crime authors talk about what inspired them to write about a particular theme, setting, or domain and how they went about doing it. There’s a certain commonality to some sources of inspiration, but there are always those fascinating quirky bits. Some of the authors that are most interesting to me draw on a vast well of knowledge, experience, and research, so that it sometimes seems they could make a valuable contribution to almost any MRJ issue!

I was tremendously amused by the cover drawing for Summer 2024 (which is Volume 40, No. 2), “Murder Takes a Holiday.” It features the Grim Reaper, ensconced in a deck chair with a cocktail and a book (yay!), while a puzzled cruise passenger looks on. “Taking a holiday” for sure. One hopes.

In Donna Andrews’s essay “Monkey Business Meets the Flying Dutchman,” she points out the value of actually visiting the place or having (some aspect of) the experience you’re writing about. She wanted to write a locked room mystery involving a cruise, but had never been on one. Easy solution: book it! Though she soon found out the crew wasn’t very forthcoming when she asked her questions about crime aboard and missing persons. “They tended to look panic-stricken and find an excuse to sneak away whenever I asked,” she says.

All this reminded me of a recent conversation with friends about the number of people who actually do go missing from cruise ships every year—the very topic the crew of Andrews’s ship avoided. Their mantra: Cruises are fun! They’re exciting! (But not in that way.)

I knew nothing about the missing cruiser phenomenon until a few years ago when I reviewed Sebastian Fitzek’s thriller, Passenger 23, for His premise of a serial killer disposing of cruise ship passengers struck me at first as an eye-roller. Then I did some research. At that time, an estimated 23 people a year—passengers and crew members alike—disappeared from the world’s cruise ships.

That number was widely viewed as an underestimate, because of the cruise shop operators’ public relations imperative to keep such incidents under wraps. They also encourage the narrative that disappearances are suicides, though often there is no evidence of that, or even contrary evidence.

Investigation is often left to a police official from the ship’s country-of-registry. For Carnival Cruises, that would be Panama, and possibly the Bahamas or Malta, where Celebrity Cruises also are registered. Disney? The Bahamas. The initial investigation and autopsy for a woman who died on a Carnival ship in 2023 was conducted by Bahamian authorities. They concluded it was a natural death, but the FBI considered it suspicious and began its own investigation some days after-the-fact, when the ship docked in Charleston.

In a case of presumed suicide from a Royal Caribbean ship late last month, the company is being fairly close-mouthed. Said a lawyer who investigates such incidents, “It’s rare for a company to publish anything that could make them seem liable for the death”—including issues like alcohol consumption.

These incentives and circumstances create the perfect set-up for deadly shenanigans. The Mystery Readers Journal cover artist apparently thought so too!

(photo: ed2456 on pixabay; creative commons license)

2 thoughts on “Murder Takes a Holiday

  1. Twenty-three people a year! Makes me glad I never took a cruise, nor will I. Sounds like a fertile ground for a mystery novel.

    • Yes, and suspect there are quite a few more than that given the impetus to cover up and the possibly less-than-thorough investigations. Among older tourists, many are solo, so who’s to complain or be taken seriously? Among younger tourists, there’s a lot of alcohol consumption. So, the decks (ha!) are stacked against a perfect understanding of this sad state of affairs.

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