The captain and his wife were asleep in each other’s arms. She, new to the watery world, slept lightly; her husband, seasoned and driven to exhaustion the last two days and nights by the perils of a gale that shipped sea after sea over the bow of his heavily loaded vessel, had plunged into a slumber as profound as the now tranquil ocean beneath him. As his wife turned in her sleep, wrapping her arms loosely about his waist and resting her cheek against the warm flesh of his shoulder, in some half-conscious chamber of her dreaming brain she heard the ship’s clock strike six bells. The cook would be stirring, the night watch rubbing their eyes and turning their noses toward the forecastle, testing the air for the first scent of their morning coffee.
Told in a variety of ways and through a variety of voices, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste deals with the true story of the mysterious disappearance of an American merchant vessel in the 1870s, and how it affects a number of characters… including one Arthur Conan Doyle. Both using more traditional narratives interspersed with diary entries and newspaper cuttings, the novel takes us into the literary society of the nineteenth century, as well as into the world of spiritualists. Different characters bring different elements to the mystery, gradually ramping up the tension to an unforgettable climax aboard the Mary Celeste herself.
The Ghost of the Mary Celeste had me at ghost story and Arthur Conan Doyle to be honest, but it was not at all what I had been expecting. By turns a tragic love story, a journalistic investigation and a historical mystery, the novel transcended my expectations in more ways than one. Although some sections were more interesting than others, and some characters caught my attention to varying degrees, the novel itself kept me up reading to see how the intricate elements all fitted together.
As a ghost story, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste has some chilling moments, though they are not at all the focus of the novel (despite what the title might seem to indicate). At the same time, although the mystery of what happened to the Mary Celeste is central to the characters, it is not as central to the story nor to the denouement. Although you do get answers at the end, they might not be the answers you are expecting and they probably don’t deal with the questions you thought they would. No, what makes The Ghost of the Mary Celeste work is seeing the effect that the mystery has on the characters, especially the tragic Violet and Sir Conan Doyle himself. Weaving throughout his life at key moments, the Mary Celeste effects the writer moreso perhaps than many of the other characters, providing him with inspiration but also forcing him to face some difficult questions about his own convictions.
The ending is low-key but beautiful, a true love story for the ages that raises more questions than it answers. Of course, one key question is left up to your imagination, which may frustrate some. For me, though, it was a perfect grace note to the story that was never as much about the Mary Celeste as it tries to make us believe.
A complex puzzle box of mystery, love, tragedy, spiritualism and inspiration, The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is a very good read. I for one look forward to reading some more of the author’s historical novels, including the well-known Mary Reilly. I give this 4 Giant Rats of Sumatra out of 5.