7 of the Best Mystery Novels Set by the Sea
Emma Stonex, author of "The Lamplighters," recommends books that revolve around the seascape
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I might argue that the sea is literature’s greatest character, living as she does among the best mysteries ever written. And yet she is modest. She rarely takes center stage. Instead, she washes around the drama’s edges, an ever-present, ever-changing companion. She is a shining, shifting backdrop, quietly reflecting all that’s worth knowing about the story and its players.
There is no better setting for a mystery than the sea. I once read that we know more about outer space than we do some regions of the ocean. The sea represents the unknown, her depth and darkness calling us on a voyage of discovery. Her changing moods harness the breadth of our own emotions: she can be calm, brutal, quiet, monstrous, peaceful, passionate. Her presence in literature invites the imagination in a way little else does—the sea exists on a curious plane between the thinking and the unconscious, a place where dreams and nightmares surface, where invented shapes can form and dissolve.
A few years ago, I came across the real-life disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from the Outer Hebrides, Scotland, in 1901. Immediately, I was hooked. The vanishing alone spooked and thrilled me, but the sea setting deepened the magic. What happened to those men? I had the uncanny sense that only the sea knew the truth. My new novel The Lamplighters moves this event to 1972, as we follow the keepers and their wives on a path to unraveling what happened.
Here are my top seven mysteries set by the sea, in which the seascape plays as important a role as any in the story:
The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
A tale of love, loss and sacrifice set on an Australian lighthouse, where Tom and Isabel make a harrowing decision that will ripple through generations to come. The sea acts as a foil for the couple’s troubled conscience, as they come to accept that some lies can never be drowned.
The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan
The sea represents the highest stakes in this haunting suspense novel about a group of strangers forced together after their ocean liner sinks on passage to New York. Newlywed Grace faces a struggle to survive—not just against the ocean but the people she’s with, in an elegantly horrifying work that asks how far we’ll go to protect ourselves.
The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
Writers have long used the sea as a metaphor for yearning, its tides and cycles returning desires as fast as they sink them. Here, Sarah Woodruff stands on the famous Cobb—a stone jetty in Lyme Regis, Dorset—staring out at the indifferent water and awaiting her lover’s return. But what tragedy has befallen her, and can she ever pursue the freedom promised by the sea?
The Beach by Alex Garland
Backpacker Richard follows a map to a mysterious Thai island in search of paradise—only to discover that the sea can hide the worst secrets. Lord of the Flies meets Heart of Darkness in this stylish ’90s thriller, which captured a moment in time and served as a warning for traveling 20-somethings everywhere.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
Glamour and deception weave an intoxicating web in this gripping tale of murder and mystery, played out against the glittering Mediterranean. The sea holds a mirror to Tom Ripley’s slippery identity and uncertain motivations, as well as one of the most memorable boat scenes of all time.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
A young unnamed narrator is swept into romance with mysterious widower Maxim de Winter—but what happened to his first wife? And why is Manderley, his home, steeped in secrets? Du Maurier is the queen of the Gothic romance novel, and here she uses the rugged, atmospheric Cornish coast to exemplify her narrator’s vulnerability and isolation.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Both a survival story and a modern fable, this is the unforgettable tale of Piscine, a young boy stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger. Martel employs the sea to devastating effect: under his pen it becomes a magical, illusory, all-seeing pool from which miracles surface and truths become fluid.