Murder on the Yacht (Rufus King)

  • By Rufus King
  • First published: US: Doubleday, 1932; UK: Hamish Hamilton, 1932

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Rufus King liked messing about in boats.  When not sending his Québecois cop Valcour to investigate murders by latitude, on yachts, in the Lesser Antilles, or off Miami, he was a wireless man on freighters, tankers, and fruit ships, salvaged shipwrecks, and served in the New York marine police.

It’s fitting; as a writer, he’s all at sea.

He writes like a teenager who wants to be “literary”.  [1]  Mannered and pretentious his prose is, and sentences like Yoda constructs he does.  [2]  Still, fans of strained metaphors and heavy-handed sermonizing will get their money’s worth.  [3]

And his detective story’s rough sailing.  Valcour boards a boat to solve a murder in New York.  He gropes his way through darkness, unrelieved by any flash of humor.  The mystery is poor fun; it’s hard to care who did it, and clues are few.  All aboard nearly lose their lives in a natural disaster.  And the wireless operator is attacked.  We’ve read it before in Murder by Latitude.

This really would have worked better as a straight novel.  Bettle the tycoon believes himself the instrument of God, and sets himself against both man and the elements.  He drives a ship into a hurricane, nearly kills passengers and crew, SPOILER and makes his son a murderer.  That would have made a powerful character study, and probably been filmed by Orson Welles.  But as a detective story, it founders.


Sickeningly the Crusader lurched, as a body shot, heeled further, further, further still, like a beaten thing.  Lay sodden.  Ribbons of canvas weather stripping slashed Valcour’s face while wetness smothered it, hard and thick and smashing on the yellow droning wind that the wetness which was not, he knew as it stung salt brine in spindrift between his lips, any rain.

Flattened smooth, the sea was, under that first slashing onslaught of screaming, drumming wind, shocked to sliced flatness…

Ebonite earphones were crisp black pools upon Meddletree’s white skin, and above tight bloodless lips.


  • Like a cold cutting wind, Bettle’s voice was.
  • Cold, the new wind was, with ice on its crest; screaming, yelling incessantly, with the hurricane drone as a deep and dreadful base, and the yacht was a waxworks of sick and inarticulate people, so bloodless that they were like living dead.
  • Lethargically hypnotic were the waves, the sun-flash on their crests, the temperate air, and the confusing terrors of last night were drifting with the yacht’s churned wake into dwindling streaks astern.


The sun was a red wet balloon puddling out beneath the sea’s sharp western lip.  There was nothing unusual in the splendid, lucent colors of the sunset sky.  Thin and low in the distant west were three slender fingers of cold black steel.  Valcour thought: They are like bars imprisoning something which would spread danger if it were to escape.

Porpoises looped slickly at the bows, looping, looping, strange projectiles hurtling, all with incredible swiftness and grace, an amusing circus with the Gulf Stream for their rings.  But Valcour was not amused.  Sunlight sank richly with its glow and heat, jading blue water and adding soft glitter to creaming crests, but he saw no beauty in it and felt no warmth.

He thought: Just as love makes you blind so does wealth, and of the two blindnesses wealth is the worse because of the incalculable harm it is able to do to people other than yourself.  Bettle was wealth.  And Bettle was stone blind.

Blurb (US)

Remember the thrills of MURDER BY THE CLOCK and MURDER BY LATITUDE?

Here is the prelude to one of the murders in the most exciting book RUFUS KING has ever written:

She thought: it is easy to imagine things when it is dark; if I did not know I was alone in the cabin I would think that that little creaking noise came from the springs of the bed.

That, she knew, was stupid.  Realistic as the dummy was, it would not creak about in bed.  Her eyes kept fixed on the pencil of light, so steady, so hypnotic, at the base of the passage door.  They were ignorant of the bedclothes being gently lifted on the bed, of the dummy quietly, gently lifting feet over the edge of the bed, of the dummy’s knees in careful creeps inching along the cluttered noisy floor.

It was time, she thought, that the hands of her watch were nearing the quarter-hour.  She reached her own hot hand out toward the knife…it closed on flesh.

And so the yacht Crusader swept on toward the south, with the stealthy hand of murder touching first here, then there, with all Lieutenant Valcour’s evidence a carafe of water locked in a safe and a suspicion locked in his mind; with the bloody secret of the killer safe – until a chance hand joggled Valcour’s arm.

Contemporary reviews

Books (Will Cuppy, 3rd April 1932, 350w)

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 3rd April 1932, 120w)

Booklist (May 1932)

5 thoughts on “Murder on the Yacht (Rufus King)

    1. Yes, I’ve read three novels and one short story collection; enough’s enough, I think! Still, like you, I love those Art Deco designs!


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