The Ghost of the Mary Celeste
In 1884, three years before he debuted Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle was a struggling writer who anonymously published a short story entitled “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement”. It was inspired by the true mystery of the Mary Celeste, an American brig that was found off the coast of Portugal more than a decade earlier without its crew and captain on board. His story imagined their dark fate – suicide, mutiny and massacre – but the Victorian public mistook Conan Doyle’s fictional tale as fact, and many of his embellishments have now become part of the myth.
This power of the writer to turn fiction into fact courses through the latest novel by Valerie Martin, an Orange prize-winning author and the daughter of a sea captain herself. In The Ghost of the Mary Celeste, she masterfully melds research and imagination to explore the mystery through her characters’ vivid inner lives.
In the dramatic opening we are introduced to the extended family of the doomed ship’s captain, Benjamin Briggs, and a little later on, to Phoebe Grant, a hard-nosed journalist. Along with Conan Doyle himself, these characters form the basis of three converging narratives pursued across years and oceans, which gather pace as Martin lifts us up into the swell of one character’s story before depositing us into the next.
The emotional lives of Victorian women are rendered with particular beauty, and often unexpected wit, through the diarised observations of Sarah, the captain’s wife, and the investigations of Phoebe Grant, who is on a mission to expose the fraudulence of popular clairvoyant Violet Petra and the spiritualist movement.
Set in an era of discovery, this is a tale filled with adventurous men and women. But what stood out to me was the underlying theme of another sort of bravery, of the detectives and journalists whose job it is to solve mysteries. It must be said that Martin herself isn’t too fussed about finding answers – she is satisfied to just ask the questions – but the story loses nothing for that. This is a rich and rewarding book that had me Googling long after I’d closed it, trying to find out for myself what was true and what was not. Perhaps that’s what the best writers in any genre, from mysteries to newspaper reportage, do: they inspire you to want to become a detective or a journalist yourself. BB
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 15, 2014 as "Valerie Martin, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste". Subscribe here.