The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel by Nicki Greenberg
Inside the CBCA Shortlist
“She slunk off to the library. The room was deserted, as it had been every time she had looked in. She wandered listlessly among the armchairs and sofas and softly glowing reading lamps, glancing along the shelves of books tight-packed behind the glass panels of their cabinet doors. They all seemed to be ponderous classics and histories bound in leather and cloth, chosen more for display than for actual reading. There were no mystery novels. She sighed, thinking what a comfort it would be to escape, even just for a moment, into the world of Olive Marvell. A world where, after all the drama and terrible suspense, you could always count on a clever detective, a tidy ending and the satisfaction of justice done. Oh, why couldn’t real life be more like that! (The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel)
Nicki Greenberg is the creator of the classic graphic novels The Great Gatsby and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. These are original works of the highest order. She also has an impressive backlist of picture books and has now written a novel for children, The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel. Nicki is certainly multi-talented.
The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel (Affirm Press) is shortlisted in the 2022 CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Readers category. It is a mystery set on board a ship. Pepper and her new friends act as detectives to solve the crime, although the large cast of suspects, red herrings and limited access across ship decks and social classes make their task more difficult.
Thank you for speaking to Joy in Books at PaperbarkWords, Nicki.
What genre would you describe The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel as?
It’s a bit of a combination. It’s a classic whodunit in the vein of Agatha Christie (I devoured her books as a kid) but it’s also an historical novel, exploring the lost world of the golden age of transatlantic travel. The ship on which the story plays out is RMS Aquitania, a real ship with a fascinating history of its own. In addition, this is a story about the protagonist, Pepper Stark, finding her place in the world as she struggles to connect with her troubled father, the Captain, and discovers new and important friendships. So there are plenty of layers to the story.
What makes Pepper Stark, your protagonist, distinctive?
I think that Pepper is distinctive for her lively can-do attitude, her curiosity and sense of wonder, and her wry humour. Pepper lives in a different time to us, almost a hundred years ago, when women and girls did not enjoy the freedoms and choices that many of us have today. But she is a plucky heroine who is not afraid to buck the system. She has her flaws, of course, and part of her growth throughout the book (and subsequent books!) is in grappling with her own assumptions, biases and emotions. These are things that we all need to come to grips with, whatever moment in history we inhabit. I think it is important to leave some space for a reader to ‘inhabit’ the protagonist and feel her story as their own, so I wanted to do this while still making Pepper a unique, flesh-and-blood character in her own right.
Who do you regard as a foil to Pepper? Why?
Norah and Sol are probably Pepper’s foils. They come to the adventure with very different backgrounds and experiences, and all three of them learn from one another as their friendships develop.
Apart from Pepper, which character do you most care about, and why?
Norah and Sol. I love both of them. They are both people I’d love as friends, and they are both so funny and full of heart. Writing in their voices was one of my greatest joys in making this book. I also have a very soft spot for dear Rory Lyons, the Captain’s steward or ‘tiger’.
Your setting here is often glittering and luxurious with an exuberant, lively feel. As seen also in the quote above, among other things, you create the setting and tone extremely well. What other features have you described to create the era?
It took an enormous amount of research to create these settings, as well as the costumes, the food, the entertainments and the society on board the ship. What you see in the book really is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. My research ran to watching footage of lifeboat drills aboard Aquitania, reading travel guides of the era, poring over photographs of the great ocean liners, plotting the action on a giant cutaway map of the ship and much more.
How does the ship setting assist the mystery and investigation?
The great transatlantic liners are a lost world now. But in their time, when this was the only way to cross from Europe to America, they comprised a whole social scene – or rather, scenes. Life in First Class was extraordinarily luxurious. And a crossing in Third could be very rough indeed. When these worlds collide, things get very interesting – which adds to the adventure of the story! Even a crossing on the largest and most powerful ships carried the possibility of catastrophe at sea (Titanic sank not so many years earlier, after all) and this also heightened the stakes. The sleuthing was the hardest part of the book to get right, but having everyone contained on board the ship did help.
How have you included poignancy?
There is poignancy in the loves and losses that the characters experience. In particular, Pepper’s yearning to connect with her father and his inability to bridge the gap between them gives me a poke in the heart.
What is one way you create tension?
Ending a chapter on a cliffhanger!
Why have you written some accounts as a newspaper column?
The slippery newspaper columnist Swindon Ogilvie is one of my favourite characters to write. The newspaper columns allow his sly, catty voice full play, and they also allow me to set out certain facts for Pepper and the broader public (and the readers). The news columns raise the stakes, too – they provide exactly the kind of publicity that could spell doom for the Captain.
You are an accomplished illustrator and graphic novelist. Why are there no pictures by you in this book?
This is not a book I ever envisaged as having pictures. But I am beyond thrilled with the cover artwork by Sylvia Morris. It is a huge feat to capture the scale of the ship, the characters and the vintage feel, all in the small space of a B-format cover. I am in awe of her work.
What impact has being shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year: Younger Readers award this year had on you or this book?
I am thrilled to see it recognised. This is probably the most intensively researched book I have ever created, and a great deal of love and hard work went into plotting and writing it. It’s wonderful when that is appreciated.
The sequel The Detective’s Guide to New York City is being published in July. Could you please give us a one-line teaser?
(three lines, but hey!)
Old wounds. Rising stars. And a poisoning… From the bright lights of Broadway to back-alley speakeasies, Pepper and her friends race to unravel a high-stakes mystery in the city that never sleeps.
Thanks very much for your responses, Nicki. You enable us to really visualise the world you have crafted and the lives of characters who inhabit it. All the very best with The Detective’s Guide to Ocean Travel and your future books.