The Ghost of the Mary Celeste: A Novel

Overview

A captivating, atmospheric return to historical fiction that is every bit as convincing and engrossing as Martin's landmark Mary Reilly.

In 1872 the American merchant vessel Mary Celeste was discovered adrift off the coast of Spain. Her cargo was intact and there was no sign of struggle, but the crew was gone. They were never found.

This maritime mystery lies at the center of an intricate narrative branching through the highest levels of ...

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The Ghost of the Mary Celeste: A Novel

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Overview

A captivating, atmospheric return to historical fiction that is every bit as convincing and engrossing as Martin's landmark Mary Reilly.

In 1872 the American merchant vessel Mary Celeste was discovered adrift off the coast of Spain. Her cargo was intact and there was no sign of struggle, but the crew was gone. They were never found.

This maritime mystery lies at the center of an intricate narrative branching through the highest levels of late-nineteenth-century literary society. While on a voyage to Africa, a rather hard-up and unproven young writer named Arthur Conan Doyle hears of the Mary Celeste and decides to write an outlandish short story about what took place. This story causes quite a sensation back in the United States, particularly between sought-after Philadelphia spiritualist medium Violet Petra and a rational-minded journalist named Phoebe Grant, who is seeking to expose Petra as a fraud. Then there is the family of the Mary Celeste's captain, a family linked to the sea for generations and marked repeatedly by tragedy. Each member of this ensemble cast holds a critical piece to the puzzle of the Mary Celeste.

These three elements—a ship found sailing without a crew, a famous writer on the verge of enormous success, and the rise of an unorthodox and heretical religious fervor—converge in unexpected ways, in diaries, in letters, in safe harbors and rough seas. In a haunted, death-obsessed age, a ghost ship appearing in the mist is by turns a provocative mystery, an inspiration to creativity, and a tragic story of the disappearance of a family and of a bond between husband and wife that, for one moment, transcends the impenetrable barrier of death.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - John Vernon
…a sly and masterly historical novel, a page-turner written with intelligence and flair. One way of constructing a novel that makes the whole seem larger than its parts is to variegate the parts—to employ multiple voices, styles and points of view, even interpolated genres, from poetry and court records to newspaper clippings, letters and diaries. Martin does all this and more, and the effect is striking. Her book becomes an omnium-gatherum, a mix-and-match scrapbook of journals, documents, narrative bridges and stories within stories. The result is a novel that feels both more and less real than a conventionally written work of fiction—more because of its historical provenance, less because we experience the story as if through shattered glass whose fragments can't be pieced back together.
Publishers Weekly
09/30/2013
Martin (Property) uses one of the most baffling maritime mysteries of all time as the starting point for a complex exploration of several different characters, including Arthur Conan Doyle. The melancholic and moving prologue, set in 1859, foreshadows the disaster that befalls a ship named Early Dawn. In 1872, the brig Mary Celeste, en route from New York to Genoa, is found floating at sea, no one aboard, and no real clues as to what happened to its crew of seven, including the captain, Benjamin Briggs; his wife; and his daughter. A decade later, Doyle, who has not yet created Sherlock Holmes, writes a fictional account of the ship’s fate, in which a lunatic passenger is responsible for a massacre of the others onboard. “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” elicits strong reactions from those who knew the Briggs family. Martin is less concerned with exploring theories about what actually happened than in the repercussions of the baffling disappearances, in a manner that will remind some of the Australian writer Joan Lindsay. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
"[A] sly and masterly historical novel, a page-turner written with intelligence and flair. One way of constructing a novel that makes the whole seem larger than its parts is to variegate the parts — to employ multiple voices, styles and points of view, even interpolated genres, from poetry and court records to newspaper clippings, letters and diaries. Martin does all this and more, and the effect is striking." The New York Times Book Review

"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. . . . The mystery remains, but thanks to Martin’s ingenuity, the narrative possibilities seem endless."The Boston Globe

"Fact and fiction meld so neatly that it seems as if every character is drawn from real life — a compliment to Martin's able research, psychological acuity and verbal finesse. Given such favorable winds, the novel — unlike the Mary Celeste — sails home with flying colors." The Seattle Times

"Valerie Martin is a writer of immense talent and insight. Her latest novel weaves a beautiful tale of loss, love, and the connections that link us. One moment we're aboard the doomed ship and another we're in the pages of a diary. The Ghost of the Mary Celeste offers readers a riveting cast and evocative prose." —Yann Martel

"Valerie Martin has written a splendid, mysterious and beautiful new novel. She writes about great ocean voyages and storms that tear apart both ships and hearts. She tells a seafaring tale in the tradition of Melville, and conjures up a mystery worthy of Arthur Conan Doyle, who actually appears as a character and plays a vital role. She writes about spiritualism with both clarity and skepticism, and in Violet Petra she has created a woman for the ages."—Pat Conroy

"The Ghost of the Mary Celeste is a wonderfully ingenious novel, compelling, convincing and exciting."—John Banville

"[A]long with a satisfying ghost story, [Martin] gives us the soil from which its central mystery grew. . . . [I]n a masterpiece of fine detail and intense reimagining, Martin evokes a world suspended between faith and reason, in which 'the other side' is quite real – and always beckoning."The Guardian

"[A]n unusual page turner." The Independent

Library Journal
★ 10/15/2013
In 1872, the sailing ship Mary Celeste was discovered off the coast of Africa fully equipped, fully intact, and uninhabited. The crew had disappeared forever, and the mystery has not been solved. Martin perches her story atop this truly fascinating tale, adding two additional strings from that time in history: self-professed spirit mediums were increasingly patronized by the wealthy, and a man named Arthur Conan Doyle was beginning to make his mark as a writer. With tales from the sea, there is always loss; with spiritualists, there is always skepticism; and with the creator of Sherlock Holmes, there are always surprising twists and turns. Populated with delicate women, strong women, and adventurous men, the seemingly disparate plotlines are skillfully woven together to create a novel that is well crafted, intriguing, and suspenseful, perhaps as a homage to Sir Conan Doyle himself. VERDICT Martin's seafaring story contains history, suspense, and heartbreak in equal measures as it slowly builds to an enigmatic conclusion. Highly recommended for all readers who appreciate quality historical fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 7/22/13.]—Susanne Wells, Indianapolis
Kirkus Reviews
2013-10-19
Martin (The Confessions of Edward Day, 2009, etc.) offers a complex, imaginative version of historical fiction, playing literary hide-and-seek with the unsolved mystery surrounding an American cargo vessel found abandoned in the Azores in 1872. Martin follows a linear chronology. In 1860, Benjamin Briggs, who will become the Mary Celeste's captain, courts his cousin Sallie Cobb, somewhat to the chagrin of her younger sister Hannah, a spiritual rebel who drifts into reveries during which she has visions. In 1872, the ship is found seaworthy but abandoned, with no sign of the crew, the captain, or his wife and infant daughter, who accompanied him on the voyage. In 1884, Arthur Conan Doyle, a young doctor and aspiring author, writes a fictional (and racist) solution to the mystery of what happened to the Mary Celeste that is heavily colored by his own less than happy trip to Africa three years earlier. The story, which captures the public's imagination and launches his career, is assumed factual by many but not by Philadelphia medium Violet Petra, who readers will immediately realize is Hannah Cobb, who long ago ran away from home and assumed a new identity. Violet is being dogged by reporter Phoebe Grant, who initially wants to expose Violet as a Spiritualist fraud but finds the young woman more victim than victimizer. On an American tour in 1894, the now famous Conan Doyle meets Petra, and she impresses him with a message from his long-dead father. He invites her to London. She disappears en route but not before giving Phoebe a document that only complicates the mystery of what happened to the Mary Celeste. And really, that mystery is the least compelling element of a novel that sheds unromantic but not unsympathetic light on 19th-century New-Age spirituality and feminism while beaming a less sympathetic focus on brilliant but highly unlikable Conan Doyle. It is Violet, the lost soul, whom readers will not be able to forget. Martin has wound the disparate threads of her novel into a haunting personal drama.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385533508
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 67,538
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

VALERIE MARTIN is the author of nine novels, including Trespass, Italian Fever, The Great Divorce, Mary Reilly, and the 2003 Orange Prize-winning Property and of three collections of short fiction.
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Interviews & Essays

About the Writing of

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste

I first read about the ghost ship the Mary Celeste when I was in fifth grade — I think it must have been an article in the Weekly Reader, the children's newspaper my school subscribed to and which I looked forward to with modest excitement every Friday. I'm sure the article barely sketched out the story - a ship sighted drifting at sea in some sort of trouble, with no sailor at the helm; the boarding of the Mary Celeste by the anxious crew of a passing ship; the discovery that there was no one aboard; the evidence that the crew had left on the ship's boat and in a hurry; and the perplexing problem - the mystery - of their motive for abandoning the ship, which was fully provisioned and in seaworthy condition. “Fit,” as one of the salvers would testify in the salvage hearing at Gibraltar, “to sail round the world.”

A few years ago, by accident and I'm still not sure where, I learned that the missing crew of the Mary Celeste included the captain's wife and his baby daughter. This detail caught my attention because I was under the impression that sailors considered women aboard ships bad luck. I began some superficial research about the subject — trawling a few nets in the wake of the Mary Celeste, and quickly uncovered a world I'd never dreamed of.

Throughout the 19th century, women regularly sailed on the vessels that plowed the seas, and it was not uncommon for children to be born aboard ship. Especially on whalers, which would be out at sea for years on end, wives took the opportunity of going along with their husbands. One whaling captain delivered all five of his children on his ship, and some of these learned to walk on a deck before they put their little feet on land. The captain's wife and family were such an ordinary component of seagoing commerce that the sailors had a name for ships with a wife and children in the aft cabin — they called them “hen frigates.”

When a captain married, the couple might combine his business with their pleasure and take a honeymoon trip. This was the case with Capt. Benjamin Briggs and his wife Sarah Cobb Briggs, who sailed to Genoa shortly after their marriage in Marion, Massachusetts. In the fall of 1872, Benjamin Briggs purchased a one/fifth interest in a newly fitted ship and signed on to sail her to Messina, a trip that would take about three months. Sarah Briggs, who disliked sailing, decided to join him, taking their two-year-old daughter along. As she wrote to her mother-in-law, “Going to sea in itself considered is anything but agreeable, at least to me, but if Benja must go I would gladly go when I could.” On October 26, having shipped ahead her melodeon, sewing machine, two boxes of music books, toys, and clothes for herself and her daughter Sophia, she took the train to New York and joined her husband at Pier 8 to board their ship the Mary Celeste.

Before long, investigation of the events that followed turned up an unexpected name: Arthur Conan Doyle.

The future creator of Sherlock Holmes was a boy when the Mary Celeste was recovered and doubtless followed the news stories about the salvage trial in Gibraltar that appeared in the British and American press. Twelve years later, when he was a struggling young doctor in Edinburgh, Doyle published a story in the Cornhill magazine that purported to be a true account of the lone survivor of the Mary Celeste. Though Doyle altered the name of the ship and changed the captain's name, the public's imagination was fired by this tale and to this day certain details entirely invented by the young Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, who longed to make his way as a writer, continue to be attached to new accounts, fictional and otherwise, about the famous ghost ship, the Mary Celeste.

Even a superficial study of the life of Arthur Conan Doyle bangs up against the 19th century Spiritualist movement, which was spawned in upstate
New York and quickly spread across the country and abroad. The craze for mediums, séances, spirit writing, spirit photography, spirit guides, table turning, apparitions, and the materialization of ectoplasm excited the interest of a credulous public, as well as an alarming number of prominent and intelligent men and women. Horace Greeley, Alfred Russel Wallace, William James and his brother Henry James, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Mary Todd and
Abraham Lincoln and even Queen Victoria indulged in séances and clairvoyant lectures. Many of these notables were ultimately disabused of their fascination, but Arthur Conan Doyle became a committed Spiritualist. He gave up writing and spent the last five years of his life traveling the world to spread the good news that life is continuous and that the dead only wait for our attention to make themselves known again.

These three elements, a ship found sailing without a crew, a famous writer on the verge of enormous success, and the rise of an unorthodox and heretical religious fervor, began to work in my imagination, and I knew I was on the track of an historical novel. In my researches the fantastic and the banal, the absurd and the tragic seemed woven into an intricate and radiant fabric, one spun from facts and fictions in much the same way everyday life spins out, one story generating another, a thread disappearing in one corner and reappearing surprisingly near the center.

--Valerie Martin

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2014

    Don't waste your money

    Hard to keep up with who was who. Story wasn't finished,left you hanging

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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