Around the time I was finishing off my first whodunnit, The Festival Murders, I was invited by the Financial Times to write about a cruise off West Africa, organized by the high-end company Silversea.
And so it was, in April 2013, that I flew to Ghana and found myself exchanging a chilly English spring for the lovely warmth of equatorial Africa. I had never been on a cruise before, and I found it intriguing from the moment I stepped off a minibus in the port of Tema, Ghana and on board the lovely sleek Silversea Explorer, together with a few other guests who were joining the ship mid-way along its itinerary, which had begun in Cape Town and ended in Dakar, Senegal.
As we climbed up the gently-swaying gangplank and alighted on deck we were greeted by a smartly uniformed purser and waitresses holding out trays of chilled Bellinis. Then, still staring through the windows at the MAERSK containers stacked up in the dock, we were served lunch in the restaurant. As pudding arrived, there was a lurch and a wobble, and we were off, out past the breakwater into the magical blue ocean yonder. After coffee, we were shown to a three-roomed cabin which came complete with a personal butler. This was no bog-standard cruise. Silversea specialize in civilized luxury, with an ethos of getting out and about and really exploring the countries you are cruising past. There were only about a hundred guests aboard, attended to by a crew and restaurant and expedition staff of another hundred.
It’s easy to make friends in such an environment. At every meal, the head waiter asks if you’d like company, and if you say yes, as I did, you soon find yourself at a lively table for eight. The dinners are delicious, and once you’ve paid for your cruise (or not in my case) all the drinks are free. Many of the other guests were Americans, and they are not known for keeping themselves to themselves. Soon I was fending off questions about what I was doing there, a single man alone. Was I looking for love? Had I recently been divorced? Was I gay? On that ship I wouldn’t have been alone.
In the daytime we were up early, and off in coaches to see the exotic interior of little-known countries like Togo, Benin, Sierra Leone and Guinea-Bissau. In Togo we attended a voodoo ceremony. In Benin, after visiting the famous slave fort at Ouidah, and the Gate of No Return, a modern monument to transported slaves, we were taken in boats to Ganvié, known as the Venice of Africa, a settlement of wooden houses in the middle of a lake. This was an unlikely place to bring tourists, as the people who live there are not that enamoured of visitors, and we were all told not to point our cameras at any of the locals, and certainly not the women, who object to being photographed and cover their faces with hands or fans if you try. By and large, the well-heeled guests of the Silversea Explorer behaved themselves in this respect, but as we sat watching the wild movements of dancers impersonating forest spirits, before heading back for a four course European-style dinner on the ship, the trip was starting to feel increasingly surreal.
On we sailed, up past the slave forts of Ghana and on past Liberia to Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, and the remote islands of the Bijagos Archipelago in Guinea-Bissau, where we found, at the end of an exciting trip through mangrove swamps on inflatable Zodiacs, a group of people - ruled by a somewhat scruffy King and Queen - who had barely seen a digital camera before. Rather than being cross about our technology like the Ganvié lot, they were visibly excited, and more than happy to appear in our photos. Many of the children were visibly thrilled to see their images, immediately reproduced on our screens.
To cut a long travelogue short, Silversea liked the enthusiastic piece I wrote about the trip for the FT and invited me back the next year to take another cruise in Australia. This was along the equally remote coast of the Kimberley, a region I had always wanted to see since I’d toured Australia years before as a backpacker for my travel book No Worries. It has a couple of dirt roads crossing an area the size of Wales, so it’s not easy to access by car. The ship, however, just moored where it wanted and off we sped in the inflatable Zodiacs, across Faraway Bay or up the spookily deserted King George River.
Once The Festival Murders was published, I was soon casting around for a second whodunnit subject. The more I thought about it, the more a cruise ship seemed like a perfect setting: exotic, moving briskly along from place to place, and yet closed-in and claustrophic too, with no chance to get off unless the Captain decided to put in at port. There were also no police on board, so lots of room for a murderer to manoeuvre - and no tedious procedural stuff to slow the pace. Though I made a lot of it up, the experience of the two cruises I’d been on with Silversea was an inspiration. How many of the characters on board the Golden Adventurer resemble the cruisers I met in Africa, and how many the cruisers I met in Australia a year later, and how many were completely fictional, I’ll pass over, but let’s just say there were some intriguing people on board both ships.
Once I started researching what might happen if there actually was a murder on a cruise ship, I found a fascinating and largely untold story: about the decidedly dodgy legal rights of passengers on ‘the high seas’; the lack of accountability on vessels that are registered in ‘flag states’ such as the Bahamas and Panama; and the cover-ups for those who do disappear. All in all it seemed that if you were interested in bumping someone off discreetly, and getting away with it, a cruise ship might suit you well. It’s an area that is also little documented in the press, and when I subsequently tried pitching pieces to the newspapers about the discoveries I’d made during my research, I received dusty answers, perhaps because those same newspapers are constantly filled with hefty supplements advertising cruises. For those interested in following up this subject further, I recommend websites such as International Cruise Victims and Cruise Ship Deaths, which document the seedy side of the industry, in a way that you may well find shocking, not to say offputting if you are thinking of going on a cruise, particularly on one of the larger ships that carry thousands in a single sailing. But it was all grist to my particular mill, and a great help in making my plot more interesting than it otherwise might have been…