DEBORAH CROMBIE: Our guest today is the Agatha and Anthonyaward-winning author, Marcia Talley, whose twelfth Hannah Ives mystery, DARK PASSAGE, has just been released. Publishers Weekly writes that the novel delivers “steady wit, intrigue, and shocks, building to “a satisfying conclusion.” Because Marcia is my dear friend as well as all that award-winning stuff, I got to read the novel in manuscript form and couldn’t agree more!
Marcia's heroine, Hannah Ives, has encountered mysteries in some very exotic locales as well as her home town of Annapolis, Maryland, but I found the setting for Dark Passage particularly interesting.
And, because Marcia is gallivanting around the UK while I am in Texas in August, I'm going to grill her about it.
So, Marcia, what gave you the idea to set a mystery on a cruise ship?
MARCIA TALLEY: I was attending a family funeral last year, and mythree sisters and I were lamenting how we never seemed to find opportunities to get together for fun times, so we decided right then to fix that. We found a reliable cruise line -- and by that I mean one that doesn't have the habit of running into solid objects, like Italy -- bargain rates, and amazingly, a week in April in which we were all free. The only thing left was to locate our passports and pack our bags. Anyway, as I waited in line, preparing to embark, gazing up at the enormous ship that would soon be taking us out to sea and miles away from land, I thought what a perfect setting for a mystery novel. It’s the ultimate “closed circle of suspects,” isn’t it? Where could a villain go, except overboard? I was taking a cruise with my sisters, and I didn’t see any reason why Hannah couldn’t do the same. Research can be hell, you know?
DEBS: (The photo above is, from left to right, Marcia and her three equally adorable sisters, Susan, Debbie, and Alison.) Marcia, tell us a bit about the plot of Dark Passage.
MARCIA: Hannah, her two sisters and Julie, Hannah’s fourteen-year-old niece, set sail from Baltimore to Bermuda on a bonding cruise, and have a dramatic first night when Pia Fanucci, a bubbly bartender magician’s assistant whom Hannah befriends, narrowly escapes injury during an on-stage illusion. Pia might make light of the incident, but it’s no laughing matter when young Julie suddenly disappears. Has she gone overboard, or is she injured somewhere on the enormous ship?
Early in the cruise, Hannah had met David Warren, a grieving father whose twenty-two-year-old daughter, Charlotte, vanished without trace from a previous cruise where she was working in the ship’s teen club. Ship’s security doesn’t seem to believe there’s a connection, so Hannah teams up with David and Pia and after a series of twists and turns, they manage to track down a dangerous sea-faring predator.
DEBS: At one point in the novel, a character observes that law enforcement while at sea is really the ‘wild wild west,’ or words to that affect. I imagine you on a stress-free vacation, lounging in a hot tub with your sisters, so how did you go about researching cruise ship security?
MARCIA: I was very lucky there. I ran into author Hannah Dennisonat a conference and we got to chatting about our respective works in progress. Hannah (no relation!) mentioned that a fellow she’d gone to college with in the UK, a former policeman, was now head of security for one of the big ships in the Cunard line. She put me in contact with him, and he answered all my questions. He was very up front about the issues that confront and frustrate him in his job. Although ship’s security and medical personnel are usually honest professionals who want to do a good job, you have to remember that they work directly for the cruise line, so sometimes there’s pressure to simply make a problem go away. I read somewhere that the cruise ship industry spends more money lobbying Congress than Wal-Mart! As a result, it’s extremely difficult to get accurate statistics on cruise ship crime.
DEBS: What else did you learn while writing Dark Passage that would surprise us?
MARCIA: I was shocked to find out that a person goes overboard every two weeks. Most of these incidents are alcohol-related – as are most accidents on board -- but sometimes a person simply vanishes from a ship and their families never find out what happened to them. Accident? Suicide? Murder? Unless there’s a witness, it would be impossible to say for sure. Security cameras can provide some clues, of course, but they can’t see everywhere. And I was amazed to learn that there are no security cameras in the passenger corridors! None! Passengers apparently consider that an invasion of privacy – I figure they don’t want to be caught sneaking into someone’s room for a little hanky-panky, or upchucking in the hallway after a long night in the bar.
DEBS: So if there is a crime at sea, who does investigate?
MARCIA: It can be a complicated jurisdictional issue. According to a law passed by Congress in 2010, any crime against a citizen of the United States that happens on a ship that regularly sails in and out of U.S. ports must be reported to and investigated by the FBI. But that can’t happen until the ship reaches port, which may be days after the incident. Ship’s security can secure the crime scene, and in recent years medical staff have been trained to collect evidence (such as performing blood tests and rape kits), but they don’t have the authority to arrest anybody. That authority lies first with the police in the country where the ship is registered (Panama or the Bahamas, for example), the police in the port of call, or in the case of U.S. citizens, with the FBI. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have the FBI on the case than a cop from some tiny island in the Caribbean.
DEBS: Seems to me, if somebody goes overboard from a big ship, that would be that. Buh-bye!
MARCIA: Sadly, that’s usually true. By the time a passenger ship large enough to carry 2500 passengers plus another 800 or so crew can stop and turn around, the poor victim would be floundering several miles behind it, if they hadn’t already gotten sucked into the ship’s turbines. One of the largest ships, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas can accommodate 8000 passengers and crew, so I imagine it would take even longer to turn around! But occasionally, someone does survive a fall overboard, especially if the fall is witnessed, and it happens near land. But here’s another thing I learned that surprised me. A U.S. Coast Guard search for a missing person can cost more than $800,000. Does the cruise line pay? Nope. Not a penny. Another good reason to be registered in Panama or the Bahamas, I guess.
DEBS: I loved the way you worked magic into the plot of this novel, Marcia.
MARCIA: As mystery writers, we’re constantly creating illusions, aren’t we, where something (or someone) isn’t who or what s/he seems. And that’s very much the case in Dark Passage. I know very little about the art of magic myself, but before he became an award-winning writer of narrative histories like Teller of Tales, The Beautiful Cigar Girl and Night of Peril, my friend Dan Stashower, was an amateur magician. (Dan started out writing mysteries, actually, a series with Houdini as the sleuth. ) Anyway, Dan recommended a fascinating book by the master illusionist, Jim Steinmeyer, called Hiding the Elephant. I learned a lot from Mr. Steinmeyer. And over lunch one day, Dan even helped me design an illusion for Channing, my fictional magician – The Turbine of Terror! Be afraid, be very afraid!
DEBS: I laughed out loud at the art auction scene.
MARCIA: I’ve been on three cruises and every single one of them had an art auction on the next to the last day. I watched people pay up to $20,000 for the tackiest art! Not exactly Elvis or The Last Supper painted on black velvet, but dangerously close, so it tickled me to poke fun at it.
DEBS: So, what’s Hannah up to now?
MARCIA: You may remember Hannah’s friend, Naddie Bromley, the retired mystery writer, from earlier books. Naddie’s moved into Calvert Colony, a posh life care community near Annapolis, Maryland where things turn out not to be as idyllic as they seem. It’s called Tomorrow’s Vengeance.
DEBS: So, readers, who knew all this about cruise lines? This is really scary stuff. Would you still take a cruise?
And do you have any good cruise stories? Tell us, and one lucky commenter will win a copy of Dark Passage. It might even be more fun--and safer--than a vacation!
Oh, and one last thing--the winner of Jenn McKinlay's Cloche and Dagger is Lynn S. So Lynn, email me at deb at deborahcrombie dot com with your mailing address, and I'll pass it on to Jenn.
PSS: And don't you love Marcia's cover??