Martin's novel weaves in and around that mystery, introducing the reader to the extended family of the captain of the Mary Celeste, including the wife who was on board with him when the ship disappears. The wife's sister, already a little unbalanced and convinced that she communicates with the dead, abandons her grieving family to re-invent herself as Violet Petra, a rising star within the spiritualist movement, which reached the height of its fevered fervor in late 19th century America. Then we meet a character named Arthur Conan Doyle, a young man who wants to become a writer, who hears the story of the Mary Celeste and decides to write a sensationalized (and entirely fictionalized) account of its last days. This account is the first step in his achieving world wide acclaim as a writer, but it also links him irrevocably with Violet Petra and the journalist who is hoping to expose Petra as a fraud.
Intriguing, no? We get a real feel for Martin's range in this novel. There are thrilling and terrifying scenes at sea interspersed with domestic scenes from those who remained at home, quiet in their desperation. She moves the story forward with a variety of styles and means: a straightforward, third person narrative, journal entries from various characters, newspaper clippings, a story within a story, and excerpts from the journalist's memoir.
I am not entirely sure why Martin doesn't have a wider readership. She won the Orange Prize for her previous historical novel, Property, and her critically acclaimed story of Dr Jekyll's housekeeper, Mary Reilly, was turned into a film by the same name. I've not run across many of her readers, and that just puzzles me. Full disclosure: I know the author a little, as she teaches at the college across the street from my bookshop, and I worked for a couple of years alongside the woman who was her research assistant on this very book. Even if I didn't have these connections, however, I'd still be surprised at not encountering more bloggers who read Martin. Her writing is solidly good and always serves the story, and when she's writing historical fiction, she's absolutely at the top of her game.
NB: The Ghost of the Mary Celeste will be published later this month by Nan A Talese, an imprint of Doubleday. I read an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.