Nonfiction

Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks

So after finishing Artemis Fowl, I decided that I wanted to read a ghost story. Though not a real ghost story, Ghost Ship definitely satisfied my craving for something spooky. It tells the story (and history) of perhaps the most famous ghost ship, the Mary Celeste. Found adrift a few hundred miles off the coast of Portugal by the Dei Gratia, what made it stand out was that there was no good explanation for what had happened.

Hicks explains that shipping tragedies were not uncommon. When it was first reported in the shipping news, it was just two lines long and listed among five other ships that had been lost. Even ghost ships were not that rare at all – in the same year that the Mary Celeste was abandoned, there would be dozens of other ghost ships discovered adrift in the Atlantic. What made the Mary Celeste so special was that no one could come up with an explanation.

The sailors on the Dei Gratia decided to split their crew and sail the Mary Celeste back to Gibraltar with them where they would claim the salvage reward. It was during their hearing that it gradually came out that, not only did know one know what had happened, no one could come up with a good guess as to what had happened.

Bad weather? Although the Atlantic is known for having the harsher weather and rougher seas, there was no damage to the Mary Celeste that would result in an experienced crew abandoning it in a lifeboat on the open waters. Also, all the hatches were wide open – not the best choice in stormy weather, of course. The sailors’ wet weather gear was all still hanging in their bunks and nothing in the way of supplies or provisions seemed to have been taken nor did it seem they had left in a hurry.

Mutiny or piracy? The captain, Benjamin Briggs, had a reputation as a good one, not the kind to inspire mutiny and ultimately, there was still no reason for the crew to have abandoned ship once they’d committed mutiny and the very fact that there was still a ship to discover (and again, nothing had been taken or even rifled through) seems to dispell the pirate theory.

Despite the fact that there is not much of the story to tell, Hicks turns the tale of the Mary Celeste into a riveting book. The first half of it is taken up with telling of the Mary Celeste’s past (she was originally named the Amazon) and that of her ill-fated captain, Benjamin Briggs and his family (all but one were seafarers and of those, I think only one managed to not die at sea). The slowest section is concerned with the trial of the Dei Gratia’s crew, but it needed to be there to coax out all the finer details and, I think, much of the information we have regarding the Mary Celeste comes from the trial’s transcripts. Then Hicks moves on to theories (including one about disappearing islands due to an underground river running below the Sahara – very cool if it’s true), hoaxes, and a brief (and slightly misplaced) foray into a discussion of the Bermuda Triangle (which is often blamed for the Mary Celeste’s disappearance, despite the fact that she was nowhere near it at the time).

As in the best of ghost stories, there are no answers to be had here, but when Hicks finally presents his solution in the last pages of the book, it is elegant and chilling in its simplicity.

My rating: A- (and the minus is only because he name-drops Clive Cussler into an awkward epilogue)

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