Nicki Greenberg’s thrilling new middle-grade novel The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel takes place on the RMS Aquitania, a real-life ocean liner that sailed between Southampton, England and New York in the glamorous 1920s. Here, Nicki shares what drew her to Aquitania and why it was the perfect setting for a mystery novel.
Working on The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel was like an extended voyage into another world – the lost world of the great transatlantic ocean liners. I’ve loved the Cole Porter musical, Anything Goes, since I was a teenager, and the shipboard setting was probably what first sparked my interest in the Golden Age ocean liners.
Once I began researching these floating palaces, I was hooked. I also grew up devouring Agatha Christie novels, so the challenge of constructing a locked room mystery on one of these magnificent ships was irresistible.
The research for this book took me several years on and off, in between writing and illustrating quite a few other books. It truly was like investigating a lost world: none of these ships exist anymore. Only glimpses remain in books, photographs (fewer than you might expect), advertising brochures, menu cards, memoirs, and memorabilia.
I dived in with a passion, hunting out as much information as I could to get a feel for what an ocean voyage would have been like in the 1920s for the privileged First Class passengers, for those in Second and Third, and for the officers and crew. I feel quite wistful about it: I would so love to be able to go on board and experience the scale and the beauty of a Golden Age liner.
RMS Aquitania was a real ship, one of the British cruise company Cunard’s ‘grand trio’ of express liners carrying passengers between Britain and New York. She made her first voyage in 1914 and had a long career including both World Wars where she served as a troop carrier and a hospital ship. Over a period of thirty-five years, she made more than 450 round voyages, carrying a total of 1.2 million passengers.
During the 1920s her passenger lists included celebrities like Dame Nellie Melba (whose luggage was famously ruined by a leaking hydrant in the baggage hold), F Scott Fitzgerald, Rudolph Valentino, Ernest Shackleton, Jack Dempsey, and the racehorse ‘Papyrus’, winner of the 1923 Epsom Derby. But Aquitania also carried her share of shady characters: crooks, swindlers, card sharpers and smugglers – perfect for a mystery novel.
I chose Aquitania for my characters’ voyage because she felt like the right ‘fit’ for the story that I wanted to tell. She was grand, stately and very prestigious, but also a little bit old-fashioned for her time in the ‘roaring twenties’. Class divisions were strictly maintained on board, which was something I wanted to explore in the book.
Aquitania also seemed to have a distinct personality: superior, self-assured, haughty, commanding, and very British. The ship herself was always going to be a character in the story, not just a setting. She is certainly a powerful character in the life of her (fictional) Captain and his daughter Pepper, the protagonist of the novel. Pepper longs to experience the glamour and excitement of a transatlantic crossing aboard Aquitania. But even more deeply, she yearns to connect with her troubled and largely absent father.
When the theft of the notorious Saffron Diamond puts the Captain’s position and reputation at stake, Pepper is compelled to try and solve the mystery. I loved setting sail with Pepper and her new-found detective friends, and being carried away by the power, beauty, mystery and peril of their voyage aboard Aquitania. I hope that you do, too.