But is it a good detective story, worth tracking down and reading? Yes, for its delirious, sensational setup and its unconventional approach to the detective investigation format. We are onboard the Meganaut, an enormous cruise ship filled with pleasure seekers traveling from New York to Paris. As tensions mount during an auction where passengers bid on travel pool numbers, the power fails and the smoking room plunges into darkness. A gunshot rings out. When the lights return, a millionaire named Smith is slumped over his table, dead. But an autopsy reveals that he has two bullets in him, not one – both following the same trajectory – and he apparently also ingested cyanide seconds before he was shot. Although Captain Mansfield has two ship detectives on board, for some reason he places his faith in four psychologists traveling to a conference and encourages them to employ the tricks of their trade to interview suspects, expound theories, and uncover the killer.
Fun? Yes, but Obelists at Sea is also a slog, full of endless interviews and ultimate solutions that aren’t so much satisfying as anticlimactic. The U.S. edition published by Alfred A. Knopf is 330 dense pages, and although the prose reads well enough, the story arc itself feels a bit of a marathon as it moves from one episodic event to another. I appreciated the Aristotelian unity of a crime commission, investigation, and resolution happening during a voyage, as setting, time, character, and plot are neatly aligned. But that unity also invites stasis and repetition.
It is also disappointing to find that the two most dazzling details of the plot – how did the victim receive two bullets along the same trajectory, and how was a man both poisoned and shot as soon as the lights went out? – are explained early and shrugged off with little fanfare. (Weapon capability and coincidence, respectively.) Instead, the story focuses on the hunt for Smith’s killer. By contrast, the author provides a delightful appendix called a Clue Finder where a dozen categories of incrimination, from X’s “opportunity to commit the crime” to “victim’s fear of” the murderer, are referenced by page and paragraph lines. One would conclude that such fastidious presentation of multiple clues within the text would vouchsafe the story as fair play, and yet I’m not fully convinced. Complete details of the relationship between killer and victim are offered only in the book’s final pages, courtesy of another multi-page expositional confession from another character.
It is comforting to know that I’m not the only one who finds the stories of C. Daly King a mixed bag. Sergio posted a smart, fair, and comprehensive review of Obelists at Sea a decade ago on his now-retired site Tipping My Fedora. Over the years, crime fiction historian and mystery novelist Martin Edwards has also been reading and reacting to King’s “barmily implausible” books, and his comment on 1939’s Arrogant Alibi seems equally appropriate here: “It’s one thing to have all the right ingredients for a whodunit, quite another to make best use of them.” Obelists at Sea indeed has the very ingredients that stir the senses of the classic mystery reader; it’s how they’re used – and the incidental discourse the reader must push through – that makes the voyage strangely uneven.
An obelist, a separate page note tells us, is “one who harbours suspicions.” It is a term the author made up and used in three book titles. Although Obelists Fly High has been reprinted in trade paperback, the other two Obelist books are difficult to find and prohibitively expensive when run to ground. As usual, I am grateful to a vibrant college and university interlibrary loan system that selflessly makes these books available (temporarily) to curious travelers like me.