In 1884, a young Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired to write a fabulist ghost story after hearing the mystifying tale of the Mary Celeste. The two-masted American sailing ship was hauled into Gibraltar after being found adrift near the Azores with no sign of the captain, his wife, young child, or the crew. Conan Doyle sold his story to Cornhill magazine, hoping for a decent fee.
Published anonymously as “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement,” it describes a dark fate for the ship — suicide, mutiny, massacre. The story registered as fact in the popular imagination, and a seagoing legend was born.
In her latest novel, Valerie Martin, takes the mystery at the heart of Conan Doyle’s story and gives us a panoramic view of the case of the Mary Celeste. She weaves various interconnected tales and a range of voices with journals and documents, and raises intriguing questions about the truth of stories passed down through the centuries.
Martin draws us in with a brief powerful opening chapter about a young sea captain, Joseph Gibbs, and his beloved wife, Maria, aboard the brig Early Dawn off the coast of Cape Fear in 1859. Disaster strikes. The hapless ship is crumpled in the path of a steamer, and as all abandon ship, the wife is swept into the sea. The captain tries to save her and is lost, as well.
The second section in Martin’s chronology, “The Green Book,” a diary kept by Maria Gibbs’s young cousin Sarah, is set in 1860. Here we meet the tragedy-plagued Gibbs family of Marion, Mass., in the months after the Mary Celeste has disappeared, and the diarist’s sister Hannah, whose visions of her drowned cousin’s ghost draw her toward the burgeoning Spiritualist movement. Conan Doyle is introduced first as the staff doctor aboard a ship bound for Africa in 1881. The captain tells Conan Doyle about the Mary Celeste, planting the seed for his ghost story, which appears three years later. Martin includes a witty section (”The Voyage of a Story”) in which issues of the Cornhill travel via various ships to distribution points in the United States. She also touches upon some of the controversy raised at the time by sea captains and investigators alike. Through diaries of a level-headed journalist named Phoebe Grant, we follow the story of clairvoyant medium Violet Petra, from her early days as a sensation in the lavish New York flats of her patrons and the Spiritualist retreat on Lake Pleasant to her meeting with Conan Doyle while he is on tour in the United States in 1894, an exchange that leads to an ill-fated voyage to London.
Conan Doyle appears one last time, in a section called “The Giant Rat of Sumatra,” which should delight Sherlock Holmes fans. By its end, he is in possession of a diary that delivers further clues.
Martin, who won Britain’s Orange Prize for her historical novel “Property,’’ slips into the 19th century with the ease of a time traveler. Her period set pieces are superb, from descriptions of the Briggs family picking plums for jam (“The trees were dripping heavy, dark fruit”) to Conan Doyle’s scrutiny of the Mediterranean-themed garden a sea captain’s widow has planted in a West Hampstead housing development, with rosemary bushes pruned into pyramids and pots of begonias “shiny as porcelain.”
In the end, as a tip of the hat, she follows Conan Doyle’s model: “The public, he knew demanded a strong plot, adventures at sea went well, also ghosts and mysteries of all kinds. Why not put them all together? A ghost ship. The Mary Celeste. A survivor’s tale. Through the shifting mists of his imagination, the image of the ship hove into view, a few of her sails torn away, but otherwise in perfect trim, coming into the wind, then falling away, at the mercy of the currents and the wind, and no one aboard.” The mystery remains, but thanks to Martin’s ingenuity, the narrative possibilities seem endless.
Jane Ciabattari is vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.