In December 1872, the brigantine Mary Celeste was found drifting 400 miles from land. Although the vessel was seaworthy and generally undamaged, with its cargo and provisions intact, none of the people who had boarded her in New York were to be found. The empty boat was towed to Gibraltar, where the Admiralty convened a hearing to determine why the ship had been abandoned. The captain’s log recorded that the ship had run into some heavy weather, but there was nothing to indicate that a storm had driven the 10 people aboard from the boat. Neither was there any evidence that the crew and the captain’s family had fallen victim to pirates or mutiny. The story was reported in all the major papers, and everyone seemed to have a theory about what happened. Even Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a fictionalized account.
Valerie Martin has pinned all the elements of The Ghost of the Mary Celeste to the mystery, but her novel is about much more than the fate of the empty boat. Stories about a Massachusetts family of sea captains, the rise of spiritualism, Doyle’s tales and his fame in England and America, the careers of journalist Phoebe Grant and clairvoyant Violet Petra are woven together with the mystery ship at their heart. Just as the author walks a line between the real and the imagined (some of her characters are historical, some fictional), the characters often walk a line between belief and skepticism. For example, the rationalist Grant, covering a spiritualist gathering for her paper, describes the people she encounters as “these bizarre, complacent people, these obstinate monomaniacs fixated on the patently absurd.” Yet, after an unsettling meeting with Petra, she allows that “When asked, most people will tell you they don’t believe in ghosts. I know this, I’ve asked. I also know that with a little pressing it emerges that everyone has a ghost story. . . . Even the most thoroughgoing materialist has some little anecdotal evidence, some moment of doubting all, now easily recalled, and eagerly dismissed.”
Martin has written a strange, seductive book. There were moments when I wondered how she was going to tie the stories together, and I was delighted when she pulled it off. The characters are complex, sometimes complicated; there are moments of snarky humor about the fashions and passions of the day; the descriptions are often vivid. But The Ghost of the Mary Celeste remains ambiguous—satisfyingly so—never just a straightforward historical novel, never just a story about spirits and those who seek them.